Expiration dates aren’t actually expiration dates. Important information ahead so you could eat more food. .A study published by Harvard Law School says 90% of us are throwing away food that’s a perfectly delicious and edible. We think that food has gone bad when it hasn’t. Even if it doesn’t look or smell bad, once the date has passed, it gives us the heebie-jeebies to eat it. I know you’ve been there. I’ve definitely been there. If I eat this, this is going to make me sick or kill me. The problem is that this expiration date-induced paranoia results in several billion pounds of unnecessary food waste every year.
The study points the finger at America’s hot mess of a food labeling system. There’s no federally binding system, so every state and local area has their own rules and regulations. And within that, there’s a ton of variability. There are different regulations for different areas, for different foods, which ends up being inconsistent and plain confusing. Between “best by” and “sell by” and “best if used before,” how is an everyday American supposed to know what’s still safe to eat?
The thing about expiration dates is that they can’t ever give an exact date that something’s going to go bad. It’s really variable. And as for the current labels, the “best by” label indicates when the product is in its peak freshness. But even if it’s not fresh, that doesn’t mean you can’t eat or drink it. Sell by date, on the other hand, is a guide for you, but for the grocer. It’s the date that the product should be sold in order to get to you while it’s still fresh. In general, using your eyes, nose, and a little common sense is a good idea.
Have your tomatoes gone wrinkly? They’re just a little dehydrated, but probably not going to kill you. Have they decomposed and gone mushy? Well, I’m not sure I’d eat that. But to be honest, I’ve eaten a ton of expired crap and I’ve never gotten sick from it that I know of. One of the scientists who reviewed the study said that in his 30 years of studying food safety, he’s never seen any illnesses break out from food kept on the shelf or in the fridge past its expiration date as long as the food was stored properly, because like keeping meat in the store wrapping to avoid spreading bacteria and making sure it doesn’t leak on other things in the fridge, not putting things like sour cream or yogurt back into the original container once you’ve taken it out, not putting in open cans in the fridge– these are the kind of things that go a long way to keep you safe and healthy.
The researchers think the food industry should go a lot further, too. They’re advocating a clear and consistent food labeling system, regulated at the federal level. They want smart labels that clearly relay safety information. And they want the “sell by” dates to be made invisible so that customers don’t get confused. Not only is this a food safety issue, but it’s one of the ways that we can prevent food waste.And by preventing food waste, we prevent a lot of wasted labor, natural resources,and we lower our already tremendous toll on the environment.