Decoding the Secret Language of Food Expiration Dates

Photograph by Raymond Forbes/Getty Images

Americans tend to harbor dark suspicions about that forgotten can of beans in the back of the pantry, far past its sell-by date. If you’re like most consumers, you probably just toss expired items on the better-safe-than-sorry principle (unless, perhaps, it’s a Twinkie). But there’s a good chance many aged food remains totally safe to eat, according to a new report (PDF) that blames the flawed food-dating system for tons of perfectly edible food getting wasted each year.

While many consumers consider the dates printed on foods a hard deadline, they actually indicate maximum quality or freshness, not safety, explains David Fikes, vice president in charge of consumer affairs at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a food trade group. “Producers want people to have the best experience of product,” he says. There’s a window after the “expiration” date when a product is still edible—it just won’t look or taste quite as good.

While some of those products are donated to food banks, many end up in the landfill. (Former Trader Joe’s President Doug Rauch is opening a market called the Daily Table in Massachusetts early next year that will prepare or cook these expired products and sell them at fast-food prices.) This contributes to the $390 of food the average American wastes each year, and the 160 billion pounds of food the country wastes annually, according to the new report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

One of the problems, NRDC scientist Dana Gunders says, is that none of the myriad ways foods are labeled actually tell consumers when they should throw out a product. The next time you clean out your pantry, consider what these common marks really mean:

Pack date: This is the day the product was manufactured. It can be helpful, for instance, if there’s a product recall.

Sell-by date: A note to retailers about when to pull a product from the shelves. It’s still safe to use after this date, but grocers generally remove it because consumers won’t trust it. Here’s a rough guide from FMI on how long foods will stay in top shape after the sell-by date—milk, for example, is typically good for as long as five days after the sell-by date.

Best-if-used-by date/use-by date: This is a note to consumers and is typically later than the sell-by date would be. It indicates when quality and taste start to decline, although the product is still edible after this date. Gunders notes that she often eats yogurt after the use-by date. How quickly spoiling occurs depends on the product and how it’s stored and handled. Canned goods last indefinitely if the can is not dented or damaged, even if the taste worsens.

Enjoy-by date: Vague and kind of promotional, but similar to the use-by date.

Freeze-by date: A reminder that freezing the product can extend shelf life. Milk, for instance, lasts one month in the freezer.

Consumers need clearer language, Gunders argues, and for nonperishables this could mean printing the pack date and a phrase like “maximum quality three months after pack date.” Another option would be to suggest use of an item within a certain number of days after opening. For perishables that carry risk of causing people to get sick, products can be labeled “unsafe to eat” after a certain date. What’s more, the NRDC urges that the sell-by date, important only to retailers, should be hidden or coded so as not to confuse the consumer. Retailers tend to insist on clear visibility for restocking purposes.

Any sweeping improvement to these labeling conventions is more likely to result from an effort by the food industry than by government regulators. As it stands, the Food and Drug Administration does not require food makers to print “expired by,” “use by,” or “best before” dates on any products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat, poultry, and certain egg products and requires a “pack date” for poultry and some eggs, according to the NRDC. Below the federal level, however, 41 states plus Washington, D.C., require date labels on some foods, along with some municipal-level rules.

Jena Roberts, vice president for business development at the National Food Lab, says confusing labels aren’t the only cause of food waste. “We’re very secure in our food purchases. We know 24/7, 365, we can go and buy another loaf of bread,” she says. “If you lived in other Third World countries, you wouldn’t do that.” Food companies, of course, want to sell their products when they taste and look the best. Who would want to buy an edible bottle of ketchup that’s turned a bit brown when there’s a bright red one available?

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