Ever 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)