An expiration date. That simple combination of letters and numbers on the side of a jug of milk, box of cereal, egg carton, and pretty much any other food items that come in a package. Consumers rely on the expiration date to inform them of when the product is considered “spoiled” or “ineffective.” Why did we just put little dog ears around spoiled and ineffective? Well, the expiration date doesn’t exactly serve the purpose that consumers believe it does.
In the linear cycle of producing, packaging, buying, selling, and trashing, Americans are prematurely throwing away perfectly good food to eat. Are you thinking that you can’t be one of those people throwing away good food since you throw away the food once it “expires?” Think again. More than 90% of Americans are guilty of tossing food out before the product could actually make you sick if consumed, and about 40% of the U.S. food supply is tossed – unused – every year because of food dating.The main thing you can blame this needless tossing of food is the confusion between the meaning of the “Use-By” and “Sell-By” dates on the packaging of foods.
The “Use-By” date is provided by the manufacturer for the consumer, and is usually found on packaged items on store shelves, such as granola bars and peanut butter. This number tells you how long (in the manufacturer’s opinion) the product will remain at its best quality if left unopened; it is not there to tell you when the food becomes inedible. In fact, you can usually consume the product after the use-by date as long as you’ve stored it properly and left it unopened. The overall quality of the food might be different, but you won’t be eating poison. For example, eggs commonly can be consumed three to five weeks after purchase even though the original use-by date conveyed that those same eggs should’ve turned rotten a couple of weeks ago. Similarly, a macaroni and cheese box stamped with a March 2013 use-by date can actually be consumed until March 2014 without any noticeable changes in quality. However, be sure to smell and examine your food. Always discard foods that develop a questionable odor, flavor or appearance. There is also a database for optimal food storage times, for both unopened and opened items.
“Sell-By” dates are a different story. Typically found on perishables like meat and milk, this number is for the stores to know how long the particular product should be displayed. Although you should buy the product before its sell-by date, foods will still remain fresh after this date expires (as long as it’s been stored properly). For instance, milk that has always been refrigerated remains drinkable for about a week after its sell-by date terminates. Again, always inspect your food or consult the above database to be sure of the food’s freshness.
So now that you, as a consumer, gained more insight on the difference between “use-by” and “sell-by” dates, you might be wondering, what can I do now to avoid the necessary act of trashing still-edible food? One simple action you can take is to shop more and buy less. Sure, you can get an ENORMOUS amount of something for a great deal at Costco anyday, but what’s the likelihood that you will actually use all of it before you know its spoiled? Not only would you be wasting food, but you would also be throwing away money. Try going to the store on a more frequent basis and squeeze in time to buy perishable foods such as meat, dairy, bread, and produce that you’ll use within the next few days. Soon, you’ll notice that your food tastes fresher, and you’ll be wasting less packaging and food. Best of all, you won’t need to go on those ridiculous scavenger hunts to look for the source of that putrid stench of rotten food.
By, Abbey P and Kelsey Y