October 14, 2013

Food Expiration Dates: New Harvard Study Suggests Changes to Food Dating, Stop US Food Waste

Food expiration dates - I know I check the expiration dates on all my food packaging, how about you?

Not that I always respect that date; for example, “sell by” to me doesn’t mean much if I brought something home and immediately tossed it in the freezer. (Which is a great thing to do, by the way: buy something on sale, then freeze it until you’re ready to use it.)

Harvard University Study Reports Americans Waste 160 Billion Pounds of Food Every Year 

 A new research study has been published by Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, entitled “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America.” (Click on the link to read the entire study online for free.)

 According to this new study, “[a]n estimated 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten,1 and according to even the most conservative estimates, Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food each year.” 

That is a heck of a lot of food  -- and a shameful amount of waste.

One of the big problems, according to these researchers? Food dating.

 Expiration dates on food in the United States are causing lots of good food to go to waste.

They are suggesting that lots of this waste could be stopped if the Food Dating system in the United States was standardized across various food industries as well as making the food labels we all read much easier to understand.

I agree. Making those food dates easier to understand would be a great thing. (Remember how you used to be able to figure out how fresh a loaf of bread was by the color-coded tag? No more; you can’t count on the color to tell you anything much any more.)

 For instance, the Harvard Study reveals that there’s nothing unsafe about food that is past the “sell by” food date — that date doesn’t have anything to do with the safety of the food itself; it’s an inventory control date for the store to control what’s on its shelves. Wow.

And, here’s a biggie: eating something well before the “sell by” food date doesn’t inherently mean that it’s all fresh, and good, and safe for you to eat. Nope. Things like how it was stored are a big factor here.

What about the “use by” food date code? The “use by” food date does not give you dependable information on how microbiologically sound that food product may be — that’s dependent on how the product has been manufactured, distributed, and stored for you.

Not All Food Is the Same: Food Dating Systems Should Reflect Ready-to-Eat Versus To-Be-Prepared 

Another big factor here: not all food is the same and they’re not suggesting that there not be universal one-size fits all food dating. Refrigerated ready-to-eat food is more risky for bacteria, for example, than something you have to bring home and cook. Why? The heat may kill dangerous bacteria in the food that the ready-to-eat item might share, but it’s not going to get zapped by heat before you eat it.

There’s lots more in the study. It’s worth your time to read. Now, I’m going to go get a snack.

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