Did you know that up to 40% of the food in the U.S. is never eaten? Yes, FORTY PERCENT. It’s a crime that so much food is going to waste in our country, when you consider how many people don’t have enough food to begin with, not to mention the wasted resources and money that went into producing and buying that food.
Why is so much food going to waste? One of the biggest culprits are the dates printed on our food packaging. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic released a study last month explaining the problems behind our current date labeling system. While many of the suggestions they make for change would have to happen on a larger systemic level (think federal regulations), there are a lot of things we can do as normal, everyday, eating humans to help curtail the waste. Step 1 is understanding what the dates printed on food labels mean.
Have you ever thrown food away because it was past the date printed on the lid? I definitely have. All the time, in fact! Until I started reading the NRDC and Harvard study as well as the USDA website, I thought the dates were printed for safety reasons. Turns out that isn’t the case at all. Dates are printed on food to indicate the peak of freshness and quality. The dates are NOT there for safety and do not necessarily reflect how safe the food is to eat.
Is your mind blown? Me too!
To make it all the more confusing, there are no federal regulations for date labels on food. All but nine states have their own regulations in place, so wording and requirements are different from state-to-state.
Here are a few tips to help with reading dates on food labels properly as well as steps we can all take to stop throwing away perfectly good food!
When Should You Throw Food Out? 1 of 8
A few tips for understanding food date labels and tips to minimize food waste!
The "Sell By" Label 2 of 8
The "sell by" label you see on many products is not printed for the consumer. That date is printed exclusively for the retailer. It has been suggested by groups like NRDC that the sell-by dates should be listed secretly so as not to confuse consumers. If you see "sell by," it can give you a general idea of when peak freshness is but is certainly not an indicator that the food is no longer safe or not good to eat.
The "Best By" Label 3 of 8
Most foods have some variation of the "best by" date label. "Best before," "best by," "best if used by," "enjoy by" and others are what you will find on many different foods. Again, this date is indicating that this is when the food will be best in terms of freshness, quality and taste. Once that date has passed, the food is still safe to eat and in fact may not even change in quality for some time.
The "Use By" Label 4 of 8
Some labels may tell you to "use by" a certain date. This is perhaps the most confusing of the labels.
- Use-by dates should always be followed on baby formula. There are federal regulations requiring a "use by" date on baby formula up until that date the formula must have all of the quantity of nutrients as listed on the label.
- For eggs and meat (fresh or processed), if a use-by date is printed, you should follow it according to the USDA. (More on that to come!)
- If there is a use-by date on other types of foods, use your good judgment for the type of food it is. If it's a condiment, it's probably still safe. If it's a sandwich purchased at the airport, then I'd probably stick to that "use-by" date!
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Use Your Fridge and Freezer Well 5 of 8
Proper storage is the best way to keep your food safe. A few things to keep in mind:
- Your fridge should be set to 40 degrees F or below.
- Your fridge needs air to circulate in order to work properly don't pack your fridge or freezer too tightly!
- The fridge door is the warmest part of the fridge, so don't store more perishable items there.
- Click here for a great infographic about how to use your fridge properly.
In addition to proper refrigeration, use your freezer whenever you can! Freezing foods is a great way to prolong the "shelf life" of many foods.
Eggs and Meat 6 of 8
Eggs are good for 3 to 5 weeks after purchase
As for meats, if the product has a "use-by" date, follow it. Either use or freeze the meat by that date. If it has a sell-by date, best-by date or no date printed, click here for a chart from the USDA for how long different meats will last when stored properly.
Canned Goods 7 of 8
Just because a canned food is past the date printed on the can does not mean it has gone bad. Canned foods are good indefinitely as long as the cans are not exposed to freezing temperatures or temperatures above 90 degrees F, or the cans are not dented, rusted or swollen.
According to the USDA, high-acid canned foods (like tomatoes and fruits) will keep their best quality for about 12-18 months, low-acid foods (like meat and vegetables) for 2-5 years. Remember, those numbers are indicators for best quality, not necessarily safety.
Dairy Products 8 of 8
Dairy products almost always have dates printed on them and those dates fall under the various labels listed above. Use your good judgement when determining if dairy products are still safe to eat. If they smell or taste funny, the texture has changed or there is mold growing on the food, time to throw it out! If the food is still tasty and looks good, then you're probably good to go. Use the dates on the containers as a guide for knowing the peak of freshness and then follow common sense.
If you would like to read more on the topic, here are a few great resources:
- USDA Food Product Dating Fact Sheet
- Summary of the NRDC and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic report
- Full report from the NRDC and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic