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Food expiration dates may not mean what you think they mean

About The Author

November 16th, 2013| by Bill Moak |

I'm a 7th generation Mississippian and one of The Magnolia State's biggest fans. Follow me on Twitter at @bmoak or email moakconsumer@gmail.com.

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When we buy milk in the Moak household, we rarely pay attention to the expiration dates. We go through so much milk that it really doesn’t matter. But I confess that, sometimes, we find things in our fridge that have been there so long that the resulting colorful organisms have developed their own little civilizations. With tongs or some other utensils, and afraid to even look at them, we throw them away in disgust. We do look at expiration dates on other perishable products, such as eggs and canned biscuits, but rarely check things like canned foods.

Bill Moak

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Expiration dates are presumably there for a reason: they help give us a reasonable date to plan our usage of food (if you actually look through your fridge once in a while). Conventional wisdom suggests that they’re based on a real expectation of when the food will become either inedible or borderline dangerous. But a recent article by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that expiration dates are actually issued in an arbitrary sort of way, and are not really regulated as many believe. Actually, the NRDC reports, these dates are really just suggestions about when the food is at peak quality. But consumers needlessly throw away millions of pounds of food each year based on those expiration dates; much of which in reality is perfectly safe. According to the study, a whopping 40 percent of food in the U.S. (worth $165 billion!!!) is thrown away. In a world where many go hungry, that seems like a travesty. And consumers are just the tip of the food-waste iceberg; manufacturers and retailers throw away huge amounts of perfectly-good food because its expiration date is near or has just passed. The study included the prestigious Harvard Food and Law Policy Institute. The report is worth reading, and has a lot of suggestions for food producers, retailers and consumers. For example, the study suggests that a more robust set of standards is needed, to ensure that the expiration dates are based on realistic factors, and not easily misinterpreted. If there were a better system, food banks and other charities could benefit, and consumers could save millions. Here are some suggestions from the study:

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1. Make “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer. Although they may be useful for retailers, they can confuse consumers. 2. Establish a reliable, coherent, and uniform consumer-facing dating system, including standard, clear language for both quality-based and safety-based date labels. 3. Include “freeze by” dates and freezing information where applicable: Promote the use of “freeze by” dates on perishable food products to help raise consumer awareness of the benefits of freezing foods and the abundance of food products that can be successfully frozen in order to extend shelf life. 4. Remove or replace quality-based dates on non-perishable, shelf-stable products: Removing “best before” or other quality dates from shelf-stable, non-perishable foods for which safety is not a concern would reduce waste of these products and increase the weight given to labels placed on products that do have safety concerns. Some type of date may still be useful, such as an indication of shelf life after opening (e.g. “Best within XX days of opening”) or the date on which the product was packed (e.g., “Maximum quality XX months/years after pack date”). 5. Ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages: Consumers should be able to easily locate and understand date labeling information on packages, perhaps through the use of a standard “safe handling” information box, akin to the “nutrition facts” panel. 6. Employ more transparent methods for selecting dates: Create a set of best practices that manufacturers and retailers can use to determine date labels for products, and consumers can learn about if interested. 7. Increase the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels”: Provide clear, pertinent food safety information alongside date labels. This could include additional phrases, QR codes that allow consumers to scan for more information, or “smart labels” like time-temperature indicators. Finally, the study suggests, we consumers can make changes including educating ourselves on food storage. This useful infographic can help you understand how to best use your refrigerator. Paying more attention to things like this can ultimately save us all money, preserve valuable food and even keep us from having to get out the tongs and hold our noses. That in itself is a win. Posted In: Food, Grocery, Product Safety

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Robert E. Hays · Top Commenter · Works at Rertired Interesting Reply · Like · November 18, 2013 at 3:05pm F acebook social plugin

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Food expiration dates may not mean what you think they mean