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The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the average American family trashes $2000 worth of food that is still good every year due to a misunderstanding of sell by, use by, and best before dates. Here is what the dates really mean.

Forty percent of the food produced in the United States never gets eaten, a new report from the Harvard University School of Law Food Law and Policy Clinic and National Resources Defense Council tells us.

Not a lot gets scraped off our plates, but millions of tons of food get thrown away because they are "old." The problem is a basic misunderstanding about the expiration dates stamped on food containers. They indicate the peak of freshness, not how long a food is safe to eat.

Food dating has been around for about 40 years, when Americans started buying more prepared foods and getting less of their food from their own gardens. The best before, use by, and sell by dates are not driven by food safety concerns, however, but instead indicate when the food will taste best. Most of the food Americans throw agawy is still good.

That doesn't mean, of course, we should eat moldy food or let our refrigerators become potential sets for the next Blob movie. Most families can save money by realizing that:

  • The sell by date isn't intended for consumer use at all. Retailers use it to determine whether they are ordering too much of an item.
  • The use by and best by dates on items stored in the pantry without refrigeration actually are intended for consumer use, but are meant to indicate peak of flavor, not food safety. Dry, boxed foods and canned foods taste best if used by their use by and best by dates, but they are still safe even 1, 2, or 3 years later. However, colors and tastes may have changed. Your Captain Crunch cereal may not be crunchy, or your Strawberry Quick may be white, instead of red.
  • Even certain refrigerated foods last longer than consumers typically think. Eggs, for example, are usually safe up to a month after purchase. They just won't taste or look as good.

It's the foods that usually aren't dated that can cause problems. If you buy vegetables, you need to keep the leafy greens separated from melons and any other kind of food that has a rind you peel off. The nooks and crannies in rinds can harbor disease-causing bacteria, especially E. coli, that can rub off one vegetable onto another. Use vegetables in a week or less. If they are beginning to turn mushy or to ooze, toss them out, and clean the compartment they were in.

If you buy meat, poultry, or fish pre-wrapped in cellophane or at the butcher counter, cook it in 3 days or less. Smoked, cured, dried, or salted proteins keep longer. Browning is a sign of oxidation, and loss of flavor. Greening is a sign of contamination.

Milk really does go bad about the same time as the expiration date. Yogurt and cheese, however, do not. They just don't look or taste as good if you keep them in the refrigerator for long periods.

In the United States, there are no national standards for sell by, use by, or best by dates. Forty-one out of fifty states make up their own rules, and nine states have no rules at all. Until there is a national standard, don't get in a hurry to clean out your cupboards, but use food you store in the refrigerator as quickly as possible.

  • Natural Resources Defense Council. ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES: FOOD AND AGRICULTURE The Dating Game How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America, http://www.nrdc.org/food/expiration-dates.asp, 18 September 2013, accessed 23 September 2013.
  • Photo courtesy of David Goehring by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/4740025131/

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