Do you have a habit of tossing food as soon as it’s past its expiration date?
I’m guilty. For years, I’ve used the expiration dates marked on food boxes to help clean out my pantry. As soon as a box passes its “use by” date, I refuse to eat it, despite fervent protests from my spouse, who insists the food is still good.
According to a new study from Harvard Law School and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), my husband is right.
Researchers estimate that up to 90 percent of Americans waste money — and food — by needlessly paying attention to “sell by” and “best before” dates on packaged products. According to the study, most products are still good long after their expiration dates and shouldn’t be tossed simply because of a product’s time stamp.
“Expiration dates are in need of some serious myth-busting because they’re leading us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food, along with all of the resources that went into growing it,” said the NRDC’s Dana Gunders in a press release. “Phrases like ‘sell by,’ ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated,” she added — making it even harder for consumers to figure out what those dates actually mean.
Grocery stores often use “sell by” dates to help sort out how long an item has been on the shelf and when it needs to be replaced. That way, the store only sells items that still have a way to go before they’re no longer fresh enough to eat.
Manufacturers, meanwhile, routinely add “use by” or “best by” dates in order to indicate when a product is at its peak freshness. The labels are supposed to help consumers decide when to eat something (and perhaps not judge if the food doesn’t taste as great as it should). It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the food is no longer safe to eat, which apparently is a common misconception.
“The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety,” write researchers in an issue brief about the study. As a result, the average American household wastes an estimated $275 to $455 per year on food they could have eaten, but instead threw away.
Adding to the confusion, manufacturers often have different methods for determining if a product is at “peak freshness,” say researchers. Only some use lab tests to decide when a product starts to turn. Manufacturers don’t have to say what method they use to come up with the date they stamp on a product.
Different states also have widely varying laws regulating expiration dates. So, depending on where you live, you could see a range of labels that mean different things — and there’s no standard way for you to pinpoint how far a product is from actually going bad.
According to the study, some states require manufacturers to include at least some kind of date label, but don’t specify what that date should mean. Others leave it up to manufacturers to decide whether or not to date a perishable product, such as milk. (About 20 states, meanwhile, bar grocery stores from selling products past the expiration dates, forcing a huge amount of food that’s still good to be discarded.)
The current food labels that you see stamped on food boxes are largely arbitrary. So think twice before you throw something away.
The purpose of the Harvard and NRDC study is to urge policymakers to come up with a uniform set of guidelines for perishable food and force manufacturers to revise the way time stamps are currently published. That doesn’t help consumers in the short term, however, who are trying to figure out whether or not an expired box of couscous is still good to eat.
A good rule-of-thumb, say researchers, is to pay closer attention to the amount of time a product has been exposed to heat, since that’s more likely to cause food spoilage than an extra long storage time. (If you leave eggs in a hot car too long, for example, they’re likely to turn bad long before the date stamped on the box.)
In most cases, go ahead and ignore a product’s “sell by” date and be wary of any “use by” or “best by” stamps, unless the product appears spoiled (as in the case of meat or fish). A product that’s slightly outdated may not taste as good as it did when it first left the store. But the difference in taste is probably slight and isn’t worth the money you’d spend to replace it.