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Here’s Something Past Its Expiration Date: The Expiration Date Itself
Consumers mistakenly think food older than its ‘best by’ label is unsafe, resulting in staggering waste
By Josh Zumbrun, WSJ
Sept. 8, 2023 5:30 am ET
Most date labels on food don’t actually claim that anything is expiring or unsafe.
Some numbers are bad because they mislead. Expiration dates on our food are worse: They’re downright destructive.
Food experts broadly agree that the expiration dates on every box of crackers, can of beans and bag of apples waste money, squander perfectly good food, needlessly clog landfills, spew methane and contribute to climate change.
Ah, but these food-safety regulations keep us safe, you might say. Yet in almost all cases, there is no regulation and the dates do nothing to keep us safe.
Contrary to a common perception, “those dates are not about safety, that’s not why they’re there, that’s not what they’re doing” says Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food safety and food science at Cornell University. “For many foods, we could completely do away with it.”
‘Absolutely Hate These Labels’
Although we call them expiration dates, most don’t actually claim anything is expiring or unsafe. Instead, the labels say “fresh until,” “display until,” “best when used by,” “better if used by,” “sell by,” “best by,” “enjoy by,” “best before” or—perhaps worst—provide a date with no explanation at all.
The dates originated as a coded system for manufacturers to communicate to retailers when to rotate stock. Consumers clamored for information on the freshness of food, and in the 1970s and 1980s consumer-facing dates became widespread, though never standardized.
Food manufacturers have tried, largely in vain, to explain that these are mostly general indicators of when food is at its peak quality. Most foods, properly stored, remain edible and safe long after their peak.
“It’s intended as a sort of consumer guide to be helpful,” said Andrew Harig, vice president at FMI—the Food Industry Association (formerly the Food Marketing Institute), a Washington trade group that represents food retailers and producers. “It’s just that it morphed into less of a guide and more of a rule, and that’s one of the challenges…Food technologists and food-safety people, they absolutely hate these labels.”
Since 2017, FMI has encouraged members to coalesce around just two labels: “Best if used by,” which indicates the product might not taste quite as good after that date but is still safe, and “Use by” for those cases where the food might actually be unsafe, such as meat from the deli counter.
U.S. consumers are wildly confused about the labels’ intent. In a 2019 paper, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University found 84% of consumers threw out food at the package date “at least occasionally” while 37% did so always or usually, though that wasn’t what most labels recommended. Over half thought date labeling was federally regulated, or were unsure. An earlier study found that 54% of people thought eating food past a sell-by date was unsafe.
In fact, with the exception of infant formula, the labels aren’t federally mandated and the food isn’t unsafe. Safety concerns usually arise from food that is contaminated or improperly stored. If you care about food safety, Wiedmann advises you to ignore “best by” dates and just set your refrigerator no higher than 37 degrees. Keeping food too warm is a real safety risk that has nothing to do with an expiration date.
While old food eventually tastes bad, it’s unlikely to be dangerous, especially if cooked. But date labels that sometimes conflate quality and safety leave many consumers with no idea how to assess whether food is safe.
This misunderstanding is one reason Americans waste a colossal amount of perfectly good food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that 31% of the available food supply goes uneaten: Retailers discard 43 billion pounds of food, consumers a further 90 billion. That’s 387 billion calories of lost food, which the USDA says works out to 1,249 calories per American per day. (The Food and Drug Administration uses 2,000 calories a day as a general guideline for nutrition advice.)
It’s hard to determine exactly how much of that waste owes to labels, but probably more than most people think. ReFED, a nonprofit that works to reduce food waste, has used data from kitchen diaries to estimate annual U.S. food waste because of labeling concerns as nearly 7 billion pounds. There’s reason to think this is an undercount. In a grotesquely amusing study, households that such diaries reported tossing 8.7 pounds of food a week, usually saying it was inedible or spoiled. Then researchers literally dug through their trash, and determined that 68% of the food was probably edible. Consumers might not even realize that they’re junking perfectly good food not because it’s bad, but because they’re putting too much faith in expiration dates.
U.K. Ditches Expiration Dates
Haters of the expiration date take hope from the U.K., where there’s been a concerted effort to cut back on food waste dating back to 2007. This has involved standardizing date labels, as well as consumer-education campaigns around the meaning of the date labels. This culminated in the U.K.’s largest supermarket chains—Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons—dumping expiration dates entirely on hundreds of items, especially produce.
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There’s some evidence the push has paid off. The Waste & Resources Action Programme, or WRAP, a U.K. charity funded in part by the country’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, looked at the composition of U.K. landfills, and found that household food waste was 18% lower in 2018 than in 2007.
Caroline Conroy, a specialist at WRAP, has a favorite study—a simple consumer test WRAP conducted—that illustrates why food labels can matter so much. Consumers were shown a slightly less-than-perfect apple that was perfectly safe to eat and asked whether they would toss it. Only 7% said they would. Except for those also shown an expiration date, of which 46% said they would toss it.
“An astonishing number of people will throw away a perfectly good apple,” Conroy said, as they blindly follow dates rather than their own eyes and nose.
Write to Josh Zumbrun at email@example.com