The truth and strategy of food expiration dates

Written by Daniel Weiner Brunner, CNN Business

When you walk into a supermarket and pick up an item—anything from milk to cereal to a can of beans—you’re likely to see a small date on the package preceded by the words “enjoy,” “sell before,” or a similar phrase.

You might think that this date is the absolute last day that food is safe to eat. You will be wrong. But you won’t be alone in coming to that false conclusion, because the system behind food label dates is an absolute mess.

There is no national standard for how those dates are set, or how they are described. Instead, there is a mixture system – a mixture State laws, best practices, and general guidelines.

“It’s a complete Wild West,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed, a nonprofit trying to eradicate food waste. However, “many consumers really think they’ve been told to throw out the food, or that even when they don’t make that choice, they’re kind of breaking some of the rules,” she said.

For food makers, the dates being sold are actually more about brand protection than they are about safety, explained Andy Harrig, vice president of sustainability, tax and commerce at FMI, an association for the food industry.

The sell-by date, often referred to as the expiration date, is a company’s estimate of when a food item will taste best, and its optimal date. “You want people to eat and enjoy the product when it is at its peak, because that will increase their enjoyment, [and] Encourage them to buy it again.

The main consequence of this unclear labeling? food waste. Lots of it.

“Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of dates… is believed to contribute to approximately 20 percent of food waste in the home,” the Food and Drug Administration wrote in a 2019 publication.

Food wasted often ends up in landfills, making it a major contributor to climate change. Some estimates suggest that food losses and waste make up 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Wasting food also means wasting money, which many consumers can’t afford, especially now with the high prices of groceries. And the food that he is It is being kicked out of food banks, where it is badly needed.

Understanding dates

Although many companies put dates on their products, infant formula is the only food required to be used before dates in the United States, said Meredith Carothers, a food safety expert with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Companies choose dates based on when they think the item tastes best. But the FSIS has its own safety recommendations. Many canned goods can stay on shelves for between one and five years, according to the agency. if properly stored. Under the right conditions, packages of dried rice and noodles can last about two years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers food storage tips and guidelines on its website.

But the rules are very different for many perishable products.

While consuming shelf-stable items after “best if used by date” is likely to be fine, and even fresh meat and poultry can spoil Before The date is on the label. That’s because store refrigerators tend to be cooler than our home refrigerators, Carothers explained.

Once consumers take meat and poultry home, she said, they should follow home storage rules. FSIS instructed people to cook or freeze some meat within two days of bringing it home from the store.

How did we get here

Manufacturers began printing sales by product information in the early 1900s. Initially, the date was written in code: retail employees had to match each code with a date with a key, but for customers the codes were unintelligible.

In the 1970s, grocery shoppers demanded more information about the quality of food on supermarket shelves. Under pressure from activists, including the distribution of brochures to decipher vending by tokens, food makers began putting dates on their labels.

At first, the “open dating” tactic seemed to work.

In February 1973, the New York Times published an article titled “Food Dating Found to Satisfy Customers and Reduce Losses.” The article cited a study by the USDA and the Consumer Research Institute, a backed group of food manufacturers, that concluded that open dating has halved the number of consumer complaints about buying spoiled or spoiled food.

But by the end of the decade, those who examined the system were less convinced of its merits.

A 1979 study by the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment suggested that open dating may not have been the right way to put down Consumer concerns.

The study found that “there is little evidence to support or refute the claim that there is a direct relationship between open-shelf dating and actual freshness of food.”

There is no way to “accurately determine the dates of different products, no consensus as to what type of date or dates… for which product to use, or even which products will ever be determined, and no real guidelines on how to display the date,” the report’s authors wrote.

Decades later, we’re still in the same boat. “There are no standardized or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States,” according to the USDA. current routing.

The FDA said manufacturers cannot place false or misleading information on labels, but “are not required to obtain agency approval of the quality-based voluntary date labels they use or specify how they arrived on the date they placed the order.” Carothers, of FSIS, states that dates can be applied as long as they do not mislead customers and comply with the service’s labeling regulations.

Where do we go next: the smell test

To avoid food waste, some advocates encourage people to rely on their senses when determining if certain foods are safe to eat.

British retailer Morrisons said early this year that it was removing “sell by” dates from some of its brand milk, switching instead to “better before” dates and encouraged customers to decide whether to discard the product based on its look and smell.

Morrisons offered these guidelines to consumers: If it looks sour or smells sour, throw it away. If it looks and smells good, you can take it even after the date.

“When food breaks down past the point we want to eat it, our defenses work very well,” said ReFed’s Gonders. “If the food doesn’t look good, or if it smells good, or if it doesn’t taste good, or if it’s sticky…then surely, we shouldn’t eat that food.”

In general, Gonders recommended those concerned with food safety to remain strict about eating food before the sale date if it has a “higher potential for listeria tolerance.” One way to select those items? She said these are foods pregnant women are told to stay away from.

Another way to prevent confusion, experts say, is to regulate the language used to describe these histories.

“Best By” vs. “Used By”

The 2021 Food Date Label Act, introduced in December of last year, wants manufacturers to use “use by” or “best if used by” only before dates on labels. The bill is the latest in a series of legislative efforts to establish a national labeling standard.

Here’s the logic: Companies that decide to put a date on the labels have to make it clear to consumers if the item is unsafe next. The date, or if it tastes a little tasteless. If it’s a safety issue, they should use ‘use by’. If it comes to food quality, ‘best if used by’ is the way to go.

Gunders and agencies like the FDA and USDA point to this label format as a good solution. Several companies have already made the transition.

The Del Monte Company, which sells canned fruits and vegetables among other products, uses “the best if ever.” In an email, the company explained that the dates are a “how-to guide”. countries that have Dates on packaged salads also use the “best if used by” label.

Even if the bill becomes law and all companies make the same changes, there will still be a missing piece of the puzzle: alerting consumers to the shift and what it means.

After all, consumers who pick up an item today won’t necessarily know that “use by” is different from “better if used by,” or if either is different from something like “enjoy it” or “sell by.” “

In order to make the dates more visible to the public, FMI’s Harrig said, there needs to be a “consistent and reactive effort to help consumers think about this.” “I think it will take some work to find out.”

CNN Wire
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