Does food actually go bad on the expiration date? (Photo: Thinkstock)
After reports surfaced that an Italian grandma accidentally poisoned her family with hot chocolate mix that expired 25 years ago, we at Yahoo Food decided to look into expiration dates to find out what’s safe and what’s not.
The details of the case remain sketchy, but one thing we do know is to not eat anything that expired more than 2 decades ago. Beyond that, though, “sell-by,” “use-by” and other food dates are almost useless in determining the safety of food. They’re also downright confusing and lead to billions of dollars in wasted food each year.
“There is no uniform method for dating food,” said Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate with the food and agriculture program at the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group. “All of the different versions aren’t federally regulated (except for baby formula, which requires a “use-by” date) and don’t tell you when your food will spoil or about the safety of your food.”
The labels are essentially determined by the food manufacture or producer as a way of letting retailers know when the food they’re selling has reached or approaches peak quality, as well as how long to display it for. Here’s a rundown, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
• “Sell-by” date informs stores how long to display food and is the date by which consumers should buy it.
• “Best If Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for optimal flavor and quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
• “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product at its peak quality.
As far as the “use-by” date on baby formula, it’s to prevent the liquid from sitting for too long, which can cause the ingredients to separate and clog the nipple of a bottle, according to the USDA.
Adding to the overall confusion is the food dating system required by more than 20 states. Next time you buy milk, take a minute to check the dating labels. Many of them vary greatly — even though they sit side-by-side in the same refrigeration unit and might be from the same company — or may not even have a date.
The headline here is: these dates have nothing to do with the safety of food. But because consumers think these dates do impact food safety, they end up throwing away about $165 billion dollars of wasted food in the U.S. — from the grower to the processor to the retailer to the consumer (especially the consumer) — each year, according to the NRDC. The average U.S. household of four people wastes about $2,275 each year by throwing out food that is still good, despite what the date says.
“Consumer confusion is a big part of the problem,” Stashwick said. “About nine out of 10 people are trashing good food based on those dates. When we throw out food, we also throw away the resources that went into producing it.”
A uniform and clear system, established by the federal government, for gauging the freshness and safety of food would go a long way toward ending the confusion and saving U.S. consumers thousands of dollars a year, experts say.
Meanwhile, follow the basic guidelines on how to safely handle food and use your nose. If it smells bad, don’t eat it. And if it expired 25 years ago, well, use your common sense.
Need a hand in the kitchen? Here are more tips:
Do you eat food after the sell-by date? Let us know below!