“Sell by,” “use by,” “best by or before”. Do we really need to throw food away after its sell- by date? Expiration dates can be really confusing, and that confusion leads to a lot of food waste.
What happens if you ignore expiry dates altogether? One man did that for a year, without ill effects – but his approach is debatable.
Last year, US Mom’s Organic Market founder and chief executive Scott Nash did something many of us are afraid to do: He ate a cup of yogurt months after its expiration date. Then tortillas a year past their expiration date.
“I mean, I ate heavy cream I think 10 weeks past date,” Nash said, “and then meat sometimes a good month past its date. It didn’t smell bad. Rinse it off, good to go.”
It was all part of his year-long experiment to test the limits of food that had passed its expiration date. Nash was interviewed about his experiment and discussed where expiration dates come from and what they really mean.
It turns out that the dates on our food labels do not have much to do with food safety. In many cases, expiration dates do not indicate when the food stops being safe to eat — rather, they tell you when the manufacturer thinks that product will stop looking and tasting its best.
Some foods, such as deli meats, unpasteurized milk and cheese, and prepared foods such as potato salad that you do not reheat, probably should be tossed after their use-by dates for safety reasons.
Tossing out a perfectly edible cup of yogurt every once in a while does not seem that bad. But it adds up. According to a survey by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and the National Consumers League, 84 percent of consumers at least occasionally throw out food because it is close to or past its package date, and over one third (37 percent) say they always or usually do so.
That food waste in landfills generates carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. And you are not just wasting calories and money. You are wasting all the resources that went into growing, packaging and transporting that food.
The FDA, researchers and the grocery manufacturing industry largely agree on an initial solution to this particular part of the food waste problem: clearer package-date labels.
In 2017, the grocery industry, led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, announced a voluntary standard on food-date labeling.
They narrowed the plethora of date-label terms down to two: “best if used by” and “use by.” “Best if used by” describes product quality, meaning the product might not taste as good past the date but is safe to eat. “Use by” is for products that are highly perishable and should be used or tossed by that date.
The FDA announced in May 2019 that it “strongly supports” the GMA and FMI efforts to use the “best if used by” label to designate food quality. When it comes to food safety, the FDA said manufacturers can put whatever terminology they want to convey health risk. But while the FDA is encouraging manufacturers to use “best if used by” as a best practice, it is still not required by law. There is no federal law that requires dates on food, except for infant formula.
Emily Broad Leib, of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, says that to have an effect, these changes need to be federally mandated.
“We’re going to need the main government agencies that regulate food to be able to say: These are what these labels mean. When you see these on products, here’s what you should do, here’s how you should interpret them,” she said.
Others who advocate replacing current food date labels suggest using language that indicates shelf life after opening or the date on which the product was packed. Nash, of Mom’s Organic Market, argues for something more unambiguous.
“They’re trying to bring clarity to the descriptor of the date. Okay that’s great, that’s better than what we have now,” he said. “But I think some things just shouldn’t be dated.”
It all started in October 2016, when Scott Nash wanted to make a smoothie. He likes his with yoghurt. As he was at his holiday cabin in Virginia, though, the only pot he had to hand was one he had inadvertently left behind on his last trip there, six months earlier. He opened it. No mould, no smell.
He decided to take the plunge and dumped the yoghurt in the blender. “I drank and waited,” he wrote on his blog. And nothing happened.
Nash had always been averse to wasting food, but now he started documenting his experiences. He whipped up cream to use, uncooked, almost four months past the date on the carton, and stirred artichoke lemon pesto through pasta seven and a half months in.
There was also minced beef (15 days old), smoked trout (24 days past sell-by), smoked turkey (six weeks past use-by), chicken broth (more than three months past best-before), roasted tomatoes (seven months past sell-by) and tortillas (practically a year old). Still nothing happened.
It raises the question: Were the dates just wrong? Have more compliant people the world over been binning perfectly good food this whole time? Should we be eating expired goods?
The first thing to point out is that Nash is based in the US, where regulations on food dating differ significantly from those in the UK. While British foods carry just one date – either “use by” or “best before” – Nash was confronted by “expiration, use by, best by, sell by, best if used by …”
He sells food for a living, and even he doesn’t understand the system. And while fresh chicken and fish went bad exactly when the dates suggested they would, dates on everything else seemed arbitrary. “I don’t think any of them are rooted in reality,” he says.
Nash points out that even things that aren’t food – baby wipes, toothpaste, soap, lotion – are dated, as are jarred and canned goods. A specialist from the US Department of Agriculture’s food safety and inspection service (FSIS) told the food website the Takeout in February that as long as a can is kept in good condition (i.e, it is not swollen, rusting, leaking or heavily dented), its contents are safe to eat, forever.
“They will never make you sick,” she said. The FSIS’s own website, however, appears to contradict that advice, stating in its shelf-stable food-safety guidance that there are limits to how long canning will preserve food.
Clearly, this lack of clarity has implications for both the health of the environment and the health of the nation. What you don’t eat, you’ll end up binning, even if you could have safely eaten it; and what you don’t know not to eat could make you sick.
A joint report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School in 2013 said that 40% of American food goes uneaten each year, and the disorienting effect of the US date labelling system is in large part to blame. At the same time, said the report, that system fails to convey important food safety information, “despite the appearance of doing so”.
British rules are clearer. The use-by date concerns safety (ignore it and you could get food poisoning), while the best-before date is about quality (you’re probably fine to eat it afterwards; it may just no longer taste or look as good). Of course, “afterwards” here doesn’t necessarily mean indefinitely: best-before dates are applied to both long-life products (biscuits, say, or Marmite) and very fresh ones, such as bread and eggs, which can go off.
Only, it’s really obvious when they do (they dry out, they smell bad, they go green), so it’s easy for you to avoid eating something that might make you ill. (For uncracked eggs, use the bowl of water test: if it sinks, it is good; if it floats, it is bad.) In other words, a best-before date means that you, like Nash, have what it takes (your senses, and common sense) to make the call. The main caveat is that the accuracy of that best-before date depends on your abiding by any storage and “once opened” guidance on the packaging.
Yet date labelling has been accused of generating both confusion and food waste in the UK, too, or of simply being ignored. As recent research by the makers of the food-waste app Too Good To Go shows, British home cooks threw away a whopping 720m eggs in 2018, with one in three saying they will bin any carton that is out of date. Yet eggs in the UK carry a best-before date, not a use-by.
All those discarded eggs show that most people still don’t understand the difference. If 74% of respondents to a 2016 Women’s Institute (WI) survey knew that “use by” was about safety, only 45% knew that “best before” wasn’t.
The waste reduction charity Wrap has found that as much as 30% of the food binned for being “past date” had a best-before; ie, it probably didn’t need to be binned. And we throw away an awful lot of food in the UK: upwards of 7m tonnes a year. Clearly, understanding dates is crucial.
Andrew Parry of Wrap says that a lot of thought goes into how a business decides on a date: what something is made of; where and how it is made; how hygienic the space in which it is made is; how consumers will treat it; how cold (or not) their fridges will be. Wrap’s research has found that only one in three of our fridges is cold enough (at 5C or lower); a degree can shave a day off the life of something.
Interviewed for a comment Amos Ronoh, a senior Nutritionist and PhD student at Uganda Martyrs University, said producers use words like best before to mean the given commodity if consumed past that date would have lost some of its qualities.
“Though the effects of consuming an expired good may not be felt in the short term, they cannot be ruled out in the long term. This can depend on other environmental exposures. Consumption of such commodities may act as enabling triggers to chronic conditions such as cancer of the liver, stomach and throat.”
Prof. John Muyonga, a senior lecturer at Makerere University, said using an expiry date is the easiest way manufacturers can project the life of their commodities produced for the market. He said expiry dates are necessary because they help manufacturers maintain consistence in the quality of commodities produced.
He said expired goods may not pose any apparent risks but urged caution. He said no one should take risks. Expired goods, he said, might lose consistency in taste.
Nakkonde Divina Lillian, a stores’ Manager at Lugef Coffee, said they use Best Before on their packaging largely to ensure their coffee is sold quickly.
“Purely processed coffee with no ingredients does not expire,” she said.
Interviewed, Godwin Bonge, the principal public relations officer UNBS, said labeling dates on packages, “is a requirement set by UNBS for every commodity manufactured to have a projected shelf life, which is referred to as the expiry date.
The shelf life of a commodity is calculated depending on the amount of additives and preservatives in a commodity. It is therefore by default that when a commodity expires, it actually becomes substandard.
“UNBS discourages consumption of any expired goods…”