My BFF’s husband is a freak about expiration dates. He’s always going through the refrigerator and cupboards, throwing stuff away as soon as it gets close to the date stamped on its packaging.
“He checks the expiration date on Snapple,” she once complained. “Did you even know there’s an expiration date on Snapple?”
I didn’t. Not that it would have mattered if I had. My BFF grew up in the same kind of household I did, where food didn’t get thrown away unless it started turning green and fuzzy. Even then, the “good parts” (the part of the food that wasn’t sprouting fur) might end up on the dinner table.
To this day, I mostly ignore sell-by dates and make decisions based on how food looks, smells and tastes. If it’s slimy, soft, fuzzy, has changed color or smells like the back of a garbage truck, I’ll toss it – no matter what the date says. But if it smells good, tastes good and looks good, I’m going for it. Even milk!
Turns out, those package dates aren’t very reliable anyway. Contrary to what most consumers think, they have nothing to do with food safety or spoilage. They’re not even an indication of when food should be discarded. All they refer to is the period at which the product is at its peak quality.
For example, “best by,” “use by” and “best if used by” dates show the manufacturer’s best guess as to when a product’s quality will start to decline. “Sell by” dates tell a store how long to display a product, so food will still be at peak quality by the time a consumer gets it home and uses it.
In most cases, properly handled food is safe to eat after its listed date. And food containing harmful bacteria such as salmonella or E. coli will be unsafe no matter its “expiration date.”
Dates on food tend to do more harm than good. Nine out of 10 people throw safe, wholesome food in the garbage because of confusion over expiration dates, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute. That amounts to $165 billion a year! The average family of four wastes several hundred dollars per year this way, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In fact, 40 percent of the food grown in this country every year never gets eaten.
That’s why the NRDC is calling for an overhaul of the whole dating system. It’s asking for clear, uniform expiration labels that indicate food safety (instead of just peak freshness), pushing for manufacturers to make “sell by” dates invisible to customers (to avoid confusion) and asking for new “freeze by” dates to be added (to help consumers stretch their dollar by prolonging the life of their food purchases).
“It is due time for a well-intended but wildly ineffective system to go by the wayside,” the NRDC said.
Until that better system comes, rely on food handling guidelines instead of expiration dates to judge your food’s safety (there’s a great food storage chart at www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html).
Also, freeze food immediately and properly, keep your fridge colder than 40 degrees and don’t dawdle bringing groceries home from the store.