Product expiration labels are adding to our food waste problem

When our food passes its expiration date we typically toss it. But is it actually unsafe to eat? Photo  source

When our food passes its expiration date we typically toss it. But is it actually unsafe to eat? Photo source

Until recently I had no idea what to do with the food in my fridge that seemed on the verge of spoiling. Sometimes I hate throwing out food so much I’ve eaten around moldy patches of bread, mushy apples, and once, maggots in a mango. (I know, gross). Other times I’m so nervous about getting sick I’ve thrown out spinach that’s still crisp and yogurt days away from its expiration date.

Those expiration dates stamped on food by manufacturers have been a helpful reference point for me, but now I’m wondering if they should be. A few days ago I didn’t notice that some hummus had expired, and ate it anyway. My roommates did the same. We’re all still healthy and around to talk about it. 

I took it as a sign that maybe there’s something I don’t know about expiration dates. Turns out there’s a lot I don’t know.

A few days ago I didn’t notice that some hummus had expired, and ate it anyway. My roommates did the same. We’re all still healthy and around to talk about it. 

First, I’d always assumed they signaled when food would spoil. Wrong. Federal regulations don’t require product dating on any foods except infant formula. That’s because the dating has little to do with health, safety, and spoilage. Expiration dates are suggestions, not rules, for when a store should sell the product by, or you should eat a product by, to enjoy the best flavor.

Let’s go back to that hummus in our fridge. We weren’t putting our health at risk by eating it close to the “sell by” date. If it had passed a “use by” date, it probably would have been fine to eat it as well, as long as it smelled okay and didn’t have any mold on it. The hummus may just not have tasted as fresh. Food producers set these dates by considering factors like temperature during distribution and packaging.

I immediately thought about all the food I’ve tossed after seeing the expiration date. A lot! And I’m not alone. Ninety percent of Americans say they toss food after the expiration date, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. It’s difficult to find data on how much of our food waste is due to our confusion over labels, but it’s likely significant. The Department of Agriculture finds that the average American tosses nearly a pound of food each day.

In fact, we send 52 million tons of food to landfills each year. When food ends up in landfills, it rots and emits methane--almost one quarter of our total methane emissions. This greenhouse gas is 21 times more harmful to the environment than CO2. When we waste food, we also squander the resources that went into producing and transporting it. ReFED, a food waste prevention organization, calculated exactly what that breaks down to: 21 percent of all fresh water, 19 percent of fertilizer, 18 percent of cropland, and 21 percent of landfill space. 

Add to this the fact that one in seven Americans are food insecure and we really need to do something to lower our waste.

What’s in an expiration date?

So let’s start with those often misleading expiration dates. My roommates and I sometimes get together to clean out our fridge, reading product labels and arguing over what to keep. Sometimes it’s a nice group bonding experience, but it definitely drags on for longer than it needs to. How do we know when it’s time to toss our food?

Know what those labels mean. “Best if Used By” tells you when the product has the best flavor or quality. After this date, cereal might taste stale or go soft. It’s not a safety date. “Use-By” recommends when you should consume a product for best quality. The only time it’s a safety date is for infant formula. “Sell-By” indicates to the store how long to keep it on shelves for sale. This is also only about guaranteeing quality for consumers.

Consider frozen food and non-perishables safe. The bacteria that causes food poisoning doesn’t grow in freezers. You can eat frozen food months or even years after the expiration date. The same applies for nonperishable grains like dry pasta and rice, as well as canned goods. Those canned peaches hanging out in your pantry food may not taste great, but if they’re free of dents and rust they’ll be safe to eat two to three years after the product date. Keep them in a cool place and out of sunlight. In general, you can expect to keep more processed foods for longer after their expiration date, thanks to all those preservatives and chemicals you may not want to eat.

Buy fresh foods in small amounts. When fruit and vegetables do go bad, turn them into fruit sauces or breads or jam. Check out these hacks for overripe fruit. Plus, here’s a cookbook that focuses on salvaging food scraps and leftovers.

Use this trick. No need to trust the expiration dates on egg cartons when you know this trick. Place eggs in a bowl of water. Bacteria produces lots of gas, so if the egg floats it’s too unsafe to eat. This tip was seriously helpful when I recently dug out an old carton from the back of the fridge. Happily, the eggs passed.

Get organized. Plan your meals ahead of time so you buy only what you eat. This has saved me so much time. I used to go to grocery stores and re-walk through every aisle twice just because I didn’t know what I wanted. FoodKeeper is a helpful app that helps you maximize food freshness and figure out how long it will stay safe to eat.

Freeze or dry your food. Freezing makes everything from bread to cheese last longer. That said, it works better for some foods than others. (Tip: don’t freeze your lettuce.) Dried food saves a lot of shelf space. Peel and slice your fruit and veggies, and then throw them in the oven at around 150 degrees

Compost, compost, compost. If you need to toss anything, see if you can compost it. The food will stay out of landfills and give nutrients back to the soil. It’s much more environmentally friendly than chemical fertilizers, and it’s also free! You just need a bin to collect food scraps and a little bit of patience. You could start here

Emily Zhang is a Stone Pier Press News Fellow based in Palo Alto, CA.