What Do Food Expiration Dates Really Mean?

By Emely Arango
Two apples on a white background, one is rotting

Most of us have grown accustomed to using the date printed on food labels as the ultimate arbiter of whether or not our food is still safe to eat.

But what if the dates don’t mean what we think they do? Are these food expiration dates trustworthy?

The truth behind the dates

In the US, with the exception of baby formula, these labels are not regulated by any federal agency. “Food date labels are really like the Wild West – there are no standards,” stated Jeffrey Costantino from ReFed, an organization advocating against food waste, meaning grocers and manufacturers can label the dates however they’d like. The dates on food labels are not meant to be used as a measure of safety, but rather as a measure of optimum quality, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Before additives and preservatives weren’t as common in our foods as they are today, people would gauge the safety of food by their sense of sight, touch and smell. Since the boom of ultra-processed foods in the 1950s began, most manufacturers and grocers have been motivated to stock the shelves with food dates earlier than the food’s actual expiration date. This ensures consumers will buy more than you need to.

How does this impact food waste?

According to FeedingAmerica.org, 39% of US food waste comes from individual households (about 42 billion pounds of food per year). An additional 20% (8.4 billion pounds of food per year) is due to confusion on the interpretation of the dates our food is labeled with. In a 2019 survey of over 1000 Americans, over 70% said they only gauged food safety by the expiration dates, and over 60% ended up tossing food that was still safe to eat, according to ReFed. Grocers and restaurants tend to do the same.

To reduce the amount of food waste in the country, many experts are advocating for stricter regulations that can make significant changes to how date labels are used. US researchers state that by having an extra means of regulation, we can prevent close to 400,000 tons of food waste annually. Other experts have asked for policies to motivate grocers and restaurants to donate their unsold food, but the confusion regarding expiration dates prohibits over 20 US states from donating foods past their expiration dates. Some grocers in many different countries such as the UK, Norway and Denmark are facing the problem by removing expiration dates altogether, and allowing people to use their own judgment when it comes to produce.

Canned goods, unless bloated or rusted, are known to stay safe for years after their expiration date, as well as sealed frozen foods. Shelf stable foods such as cereals, cookies, pastas and chips may taste stale, but this does not mean they are a food hazard. Refrigerated eggs can stay good for up to 5 weeks, or until your nose alerts you of any possible spoilage, and the safety of produce can always be measured by bad odors, slimy exteriors and molding. Meats are susceptible to pathogenic bacteria that is more difficult to gauge, and the US Department of Agriculture suggests eating or freezing meats within days of purchase, as well as unpasteurized cheeses, deli meats and pre- packaged salads.

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