Chances are, you and your family don’t always agree on whether to toss a carton of eggs or a box of crackers based on the date stamped on the packaging. Last year, a poll from the Food Policy Action Network found that 60 percent of people have debated the meaning of food labels within their households. But confusing label terms—“Sell by,” “Best before,” “Expires on,” “Enjoy by”—don’t just cause arguments; they also cause food waste. A 2013 industry-conducted survey from Eastern Research Group, cited in a report from NRDC and Harvard Law School, revealed that more than 90 percent of consumers have prematurely thrown away food because they misinterpret these labels as indicators of food safety.
In fact, manufacturers typically use these labels to indicate when a food is at its peak quality, even though it may be safe to eat long beyond the date on its package. Federal regulations do not require product dating for anything except infant formula. And while some states do require certain date labels on certain types of food, their requirements differ, leading to separate and sometimes conflicting state-based labeling systems.
This year, consumers will start to see a simplified date labeling system aimed at cutting the confusion. It’s a small but important step in combating our massive food waste habit, which causes an estimated 40 percent of food to go uneaten in America. The new approach to labeling (described below), which many food-processing companies are adopting on a voluntary basis, will help prevent retailers from pruning their shelves at the current rate: According to one industry expert, the average grocery store discards $2,300 worth of “out of date” goods each day. It’ll save consumers cash, too: The typical American family of four spends $1,800 each year on food they don’t eat.
Until the simplified labels catch on, trust your gut (and your nose) when deciding what to toss and what to keep. These food-saving and food-storage tips will help.
Treat Food Date Labels More as Suggestions than Commands.
Under our current system, it’s hard to know what the date stamped on a food container is intended to mean. In some cases, the dates aren’t even meant to communicate with consumers. “Sell by” dates, for instance, are intended for grocers to use in managing their inventory. True, some foods have short shelf lives, but many others have surprising staying power.
“Condiments stored properly in the pantry or fridge can be good for years,” says Ted Labuza, PhD, a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. “Canned foods—though labeled safe for about three years—can potentially last for decades. Let your nose—and maybe a few nibbles—serve as your best guides,” Labuza says. You’ll want to get rid of anything sticky, smelly, or slimy.
Use Your Senses and Then Get Creative.
Food is a living thing, and from the moment of harvest, it begins to decompose. But just because your bread is drying up or your bananas are going brown, it doesn’t mean they’re spoiled. (Mold, of course, is a different story.)
While some signs of food damage are red flags—such as an open scratch on a pear where bacteria could potentially grow—many flaws are harmless. Others just require a little bit of kitchen savvy to get past. Whip brown bananas into smoothies, for example, or turn stale bread into toast. Soak tired veggies in ice water. Sauté your wilting greens. Cook too-soft tomatoes into soup. There are plenty of ways to salvage foods slightly past their prime. And if all really is lost? Compost.
Maximize Your Food’s Life Span with These Six Storage Tips.
- Place produce in sealed packaging and refrigerate it. (There are some exceptions, like bananas, potatoes, and onions, for example, which are best kept just below room temperature).
- Keep your refrigerator at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Reserve the coldest part of your fridge (usually the bottom) for fish, poultry, prepared foods, and other items that are highly perishable. Place items like drinks, snacks, and condiments on an upper shelf or in a door compartment.
- If cans are dented, bulging, or misshapen, throw them out (bacteria inside can cause their contents to swell).
- Store nonperishable pantry items in a cool, dry place—i.e., not in a cabinet above your stove or in direct sunlight.
- Don’t leave perishable foods out (placing milk on a countertop for one to two hours can rob it of a full three hours of refrigerator shelf life).
Look Out for New Labels.
In 2017, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association developed new voluntary guidelines for food date labeling for their members. The new system greatly simplifies the wording used on food date labels, trimming them down to these two terms:
- “Best if used by” describes product quality. The product may not taste or perform as expected after the date, but it is safe to use or consume.
- “Use by” applies to the much smaller number of products that are highly perishable or for which a food safety concern may arise over time. Such products should be consumed by the date shown on the package. After that, they should be discarded.
“While the ‘use by’ label ensures a perishable product is safe, the ‘best if used by’ label ensures a nonperishable one is of good quality,” says Meghan Stasz, the senior director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Walmart, the largest U.S. retailer, helped catalyze the shift to simplified labels and is slashing the number of labels on its Great Value food products from a total of 47 down to just one, which will be the “best if used by” date.
“Though major industry players are following suit and quickly adopting the new labels, we still hope to codify this into federal law,” says JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate at NRDC. “Federal legislation would avoid the confusing patchwork of state standards that now exists and would help educate consumers about what the labels do and don’t mean.”
During the phase-in period for the voluntary standards, shoppers may still encounter the old panoply of labels. But Stasz says industry leaders “expect to see broad adoption of these standards by the end of 2018,” regardless of whether Congress takes action.
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