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‘Sell by’ dates on food lie to you, waste your money

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Problems with food dating cause people to waste foodEver find food past its “sell by” date in the fridge and just throw it away without looking at it? If so, you’re almost certainly throwing away perfectly good food, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

There’s a temptation to treat the dates on food as infallible predictors of when food will go bad, but in a lot of cases they’re basically bologna. Many dates aren’t based on food safety, but on when the manufacturers thinks the food will taste best. That causes a lot of retailers and consumers to toss food that’s perfectly fine to eat.

As the report notes, such wastage may be just fine by some food manufacturers, who now get to sell a replacement for the item you threw away “at the expense of consumers’ economic interests.” How much “economic interest” are we talking about here? Wasting food costs American families up to $2,275 per year, according to researchers’ estimates, and that’s almost certainly made worse by confusion over labeling. Overall, per capita food losses have risen by 50 percent since 1974.

So why is food labeling such a clown show in the U.S.? A lot of it has to do with the slipshod way the dates are regulated. Every state has different regulations on food labeling. Some states force retailers to separate food that’s past its expiration dates, and others make it illegal to sell it at all, while 9 states having no requirements at all for food manufacturers at all. On top of that, lots of cities and counties have their own regulations, muddying the waters even more.

In fact, the amount of time since a piece of food was packaged has little to no relationship with whether it’s got dangerous bacteria growing inside, according to the report; more important was what temperature it was stored at and how it was handled. The only case where an expiration date really helps you gauge whether something’s unsafe to eat is prepared foods, where sitting around for a long time can allow Listeria bacteria to grow to dangerous levels.

Here are some tips that might actually help you avoid getting sick:

  • Find out how long you can really keep a food item before it will go bad. The Food Marketing Institute has a database with information on how long different types of food can keep on your shelf or in your fridge before going bad.
  • Keep food out of the “Danger Zone.” What the USDA hilariously calls “The Danger Zone” may be a great place for ’80s fighter jocks, but it’s not a great place for food. Cold food stored at temperatures above 40 degrees and hot food that falls below 140 degrees tend to grow bacteria quickly, so make sure you don’t leave food sitting around between those temperatures for too long.
  • Make sure your fridge is cold enough. If your fridge is above 40 degrees inside, you’ve got a problem.
  • Refrigerate food quickly. Perishable food bought at the grocery store should be refrigerated within 2 hours, or 1 hour if it’s 90 degrees or hotter outside.

What do you think? Are you the type to throw food away as soon as the label says so, or do you push it further?

(Photo: Lars Plougmann)

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13 Responses to “‘Sell by’ dates on food lie to you, waste your money”

  1. Michelle says:

    I usually don’t throw it away right afterwards. However, W will not eat something past the date. Drives me nuts!

  2. Jim says:

    I know they might be lying to me but that OJ from 2007 is *probably* bad. :)

  3. Brandon says:

    These dates drive me nuts, and I’d rather not gamble and eat something bad.

    Some dates say “sell by”, some say “use by”, some say “expiration” and many say nothing and only list the date.

    So instead of gambling I usually toss it (after inspection, of course) if it’s a few days past the date.

  4. Claes says:

    Jim: Ha! Probably true
    Brandon and Michelle: I try to at least smell test a food item before throwing it out. But yeah there’s nothing worse than taking a gulp of spoiled milk or something.

  5. Meg says:

    I usually use the “bad” food for another purpose, ie – expired yogurt or milk for cooking or baking.

  6. Maria says:

    Once I ate a box of raisins that I found in my Grandma’s pantry before I realized that they expired in 1984. Still here to tell the tale :)

  7. Jim says:

    You can use expired yogurt and milk in cooking?

  8. KR says:

    My mom would have cans from, say, 1962 in the cupboard, and argue, “It doesn’t have an expiration date, so it’s still OK”.

  9. dojo says:

    I would rather ‘waste’ money throwing something away, than risk to get sick, since this will surely cost me way more than the merchandise. So I don’t even touch anything that’s expired.

    On the other hand though, we do buy carefully, so that we can consume the produce before it goes bad. This way we don’t waste money throwing it all away and don’t risk anything by eating the food that’s not ‘in date’ anymore

  10. KimNK says:

    I remember buying a gallon of milk for my dad where the expiration date was stamped a month away. The milk became spoiled two weeks before the expiration date; the temperature in the frig was below 40 degrees. That’s bad!!

  11. Cate says:

    I agree with you. However many times I wanted to eat for example cream which didn’t paste its date and it was bad already. I think that it’s better to trust the procuders than have some problem with stomach.

  12. SLCCOM says:

    Actually, if the can is intact, not bulging, it is perfectly good.

  13. Carol Baum says:

    Many items are not spoiled after expiration date. Twenty years ago I threw away anthing that had an expired date. It is to the food industry advantage when you replace an expired food item.
    If canned goods are not dented, leaking, look or smell odd, then they are safe. I wouldn’t use anything I doubted either. If in doubt, throw it out.
    Pasteurized milk, cream, orange juice is generally safe longer than the expiration date due to pasteurization.


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