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Waste Not, Want Not: Decoding Food Expiration Dates

In the aisles of grocery stores, a symphony of expiration dates plays out before shoppers’ eyes: “sell by,” “enjoy by,” “freeze by”, etc. Yet, this chorus of labeling confusion goes beyond mere inconvenience. It results in a significant amount of perfectly good food being needlessly wasted, as consumers misinterpret dates and discard edible items from their refrigerators.

Unlike many other countries, the United States lacks comprehensive national standards for food expiration dates, with the exception of infant formula. The absence of federal legislation has led to a patchwork of conflicting state laws, allowing food producers to apply arbitrary expiration dates and phrasing to their products, exacerbating the confusion, according to experts.

This lack of consistency in date labeling practices contributes to an estimated 80 million tons of edible food going uneaten, with far-reaching environmental implications. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights that global food loss and waste account for 8 to 10 percent of all greenhouse gas pollution.

Recognizing the need for change, a group of lawmakers, including Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), recently reintroduced the Food Date Labeling Act. This bill aims to standardize expiration date labels on food products and reduce food waste.

While awaiting congressional action, here are practical steps to understand food dates and minimize waste:

  1. Understand the meaning of food labels: In the United States, most dates on food items indicate freshness rather than safety, as confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Products past “best if used by their” dates might not taste as fresh but are often perfectly safe to consume.
  2. Trust your senses: When printed dates on the packaging are unreliable, rely on your own senses. Humans have evolved the ability to detect spoiled milk or identify moldy bread, making our noses and eyes effective tools in assessing food safety.
  3. Familiarize yourself with exceptions: Some foodborne bacteria, like listeria, cannot be detected through taste or smell. Pregnant individuals and the elderly should be cautious with items that can harbor such pathogens, such as deli meats and ready-to-eat sandwiches.
  4. Leverage heat and cold: Cooking slightly wilted vegetables can eliminate most pathogens. The heat from cooking destroys harmful bacteria, ensuring the safety of food that appears fine but has passed. Freezing its expiration date is also a valuable tool to extend the shelf life of food, preserving flavor and quality.

    By implementing these strategies, we can reduce food waste, combat climate change, and make significant strides toward a more sustainable future. Embracing a clearer and more uniform approach to food expiration dates will allow us to appreciate the nourishment that would otherwise be needlessly discarded.

Check out other articles in our Environment and Food sections.


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