Break Up With Expiration: Why Food Dates Aren’t Always True

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Cleaning out your refrigerator and cabinets may be costing you between $295 and $455 each year, and the culprit is a perception problem. When Americans see their date stamped foods as having “expired,” they pitch them; but a report by Harvard and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) indicates these items may not actually be past shelf-life, and perfectly good food is going to waste.

To reach its figures, Harvard extrapolated from a study done in the UK, because no similar information exists for the U.S. It found that a misunderstanding of date labels accounted for 20 percent of the Britain’s food waste. In one survey conducted in the U.S., 91 percent of respondents said they had thrown food away out of fear that consuming it would cause an illness. However, the date the consumer based the information off was not an expiration date, but one that was meant to inform them their product still had shelf-life.

Congress vested the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture with food safety, including preventing ambiguous information from proliferating. Little has been done to remedy the confusion caused by labels. Interestingly, USDA calls attention to this very problem. “Consumers may discard wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates stamped on the label,” the agency states online before providing a link to an explanation of terms used.

The Harvard/NRDC report explains how the confusion persists, adding that few real efforts for uniformity have been established. A simple cartoon carton of orange juice is depicted. Although it is stamped with “use by” the report says the only food product actually under regulation when this term is used is infant formula. The concern is not food safety, rather, nutrients are lost over time making the “use by” date important for other health standards. ”Use by” is of course not a given, and sometimes there is just a date imprinted on an item’s packaging with no clue to provide the consumer how to interpret it. This easily leads to wasted food as people discard the opaque information.

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