The Truth (and Lies) about Expiration Dates
Updated: May 9, 2020
Have you ever tossed out a can of soup because it was past its expiration date? Thrown out a container of salad dressing that had been in your fridge a little too long after the use by label? You're not alone.
Worldwide we throw out one-third of the food we produce for consumption. In the U.S. 40% of that happens in our own homes when we don't eat what we buy. So why are we wasting so much food? Let's start with a close look at the misconceptions behind expiration dates.
What is an Expiration Date?
Although we refer to the dates on our products as "expiration dates", really the dates come under a few different names.
Best by or Best if used by - these dates are determined by the manufacturer and/or the distributor and let the consumer know when the product will have the highest quality and freshness for consumption.
Sell by or Pull by - these dates are placed by the distributor to keep track of when a product was placed on the shelf. It dictates when the store clerk should pull the product off the shelf and not continue to sell it.
Use by - these dates are determined by the manufacturer and/or distributor and similarly let consumers know when is the last day recommended for use in order to maintain peak quality.
No matter what the name is though, the date is not a safety date. According to the Food and Drug Administration website, expiration dates are voluntarily determined by the producer and/or marketer. "Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law" (Food Product Dating, USDA).
Unfortunately though ~42% of consumers think that expiration dates relate to safety. This contributes to the practice of checking the date and throwing out anything that it past gone, regardless of its current quality.
Expiration Dates are Not Federally Required
With the exception of infant formula and prescription drugs, expiration dates are not required by federal law on any products. States are then left with the job of deciding their own food safety regulations, which vary widely. In Washington State, products that will go bad within a month (such as cottage cheese, milk, and eggs) are required to have a SELL BY date. Just one state over, however, in Idaho, no such dates are required.
Whether or not a manufacturer places an expiration date on products like cookies, mac & cheese, and canned goods is then usually up to them. They determine when a product is most likely to taste at its optimal flavor and then place a USE BY date on the package. Again, this is not a safety date. Simply a determination of when their product is most likely to satisfy customers.
The sticky part is that these manufacturers benefit from when we throw out old food. If the expiration date is sooner, it is more likely we won't actually finish the product before throwing it out. Therefore causing us to buy more than we would necessarily need. This increases the companies sales and profits. Would you trust the big companies then to put an honest date on their package if it's not regulated by law?
How to Know if Your Food Has Gone Bad
The truth is the best way to know if your food is still safe to eat is to use your senses. Most food will change color or smell when they have begun to go bad. Rotten milk, for example, is a smell just about everyone can relate to and has a taste that immediately gives itself away as unsafe. Give your food a once over and if anything looks off, it probably is.
It's also important to properly store your food to maximize its quality and freshness. There are websites that provide food storage information and many ways to use up ingredients before they rot.
There are a variety of ways to use up leftovers and cook with odd ingredients, like lemon rinds!
Eat Your Food (don't waste it!)
All in all, wasted food has a serious environmental impact. That's why it is key to properly understand what expiration dates do and don't mean. If you're uncomfortable eating something that is past its label, remember that someone else might not be - and you should share it with them! It will make a difference for your wallet and the planet.