Food Expiration Dates Not Necessarily the Last Word

Categories: Food Policy

Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
What does this label mean? Is my sandwich rancid?
Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report titled "The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America". The gist of it is something that most Americans can probably agree on: Labels on our food that seek to aid us are often very confusing.

Some labels state "sell by," which is presumably directed at the producer. Others have "use by" dates, which presumably inform consumers when food will go bad. Still other food labels read "best before," which implies that the item can still be eaten after the printed date, though it might not taste as good as it should.

The issue, according to the NRDC, is that these labels are "both poorly understood and surprisingly underregulated, such that their meanings and timeframes are generally not defined in law." What that means is that any producer can pretty much put any date or no date at all on its products, and consumers follow these dates without really knowing what they mean.

There is no comprehensive research on the amount of food waste generated by labeling systems (or lack thereof), but talk to any chef or market owner, and they'll tell you it's a big issue.

Photo by Mark Turnauckas
Eggs are notorious for "expiring" weeks before they're actually unsafe to consume.
"It's the biggest rip-off there is," says Peter Basralian, controller, administrator and part-time chef at Phoenicia Foods. I had phoned Phoenicia to get in touch with the operations manager there, Raffi Tcholakian, but Basralian, who answered the call, was happy to give me an earful about the chaotic state of food labeling in America

"Expiration dates are premature from the actual dates they expire," Basralian says, echoing the findings of the NRDC. "We have to throw out so much food because of those dates."

Legally, restaurants and other businesses that sell food cannot use or sell consumables that are past their expiration, use-by, or sell-by dates, even if the food is clearly still safe for human consumption. When I did talk to Tcholakian, he confirmed what Basralian had said. He noted that at Phoenicia they don't really encounter issues with labeling their own fresh products, as most of it is off the shelves and replaced by new sandwiches or deli meat within a day or two.

"The issues we have are regarding the products we use," Tcholakian says. "I've eaten a lot of expired stuff myself that we can't sell, and it's still good. We give it away to homeless shelters and other organizations because we just can't sell it."

This practice is helpful to the shelters, of course, but it costs restaurants and businesses. Worse, though, is the effect that excess food production has on the environment. According to the NRDC's report, a 30 percent decrease in consumer waste could save an estimated 100 million acres of cropland. The report also points out that the production of wasted food in the U.S. consumes as much as 25 percent of America's fresh water supply.

Why so much waste?

Location Info

Phoenicia Specialty Foods

12141 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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paval topcommenter

There is one more factor that also contributes to confusion, other than "sell by", "use by" "sell by or freeze by", "best before" and such. The US is the only country in the world that uses dates with the month before the day and with all the imported foods sometimes some may slip through that is dated in a rest of the world way. Easy if it shows numbers beyond 12, but till 12 it can be tricky to determine if we are talking days or months. 

My rule is as KS points out, smell, taste, look. And not all mold is bad as also pointed out. Mold on cheese depends a lot on coloration of mold, type of cheese, etc. Pink mold on soft cheeses like brie and camembert or blue cheese indicates a problem. Mold on a Velveeta (i know not a cheese!!) is much worse than on a Swiss Cheese (swiss cheese is a living organism, while the former is a dead substance). 

Chocolate for example is most times safe to eat, as well as preserves (thats why they call them preserves) way past expiration times (2 years at least), even though chocolate is no good if there is a white sheen on it (indicating separation of butter and cocoa due to heat or age). Preserves need to be kept air tight at all times as yeast loves sugar and will show up as mold on top of preserves. 

I once found an expiration date on salt and thought to myself. Why would they put a date on salt. Salt has been around for a few million years, surely 100 days or 1000 days past a best buy date will not have any effect on the taste, texture and color of salt. They don't. And neither do 10000 days or 100000 days. 

Chips and other fried products will get bad faster due to the oils used in the making. If they smell rancid they will be bad. Regardless of the date. 

 As one commenter put it. Common sense should be much more a rule than a date. But this also requires some knowledge of food products, as every product is different to the next in regards of decaying. Understand the food you eat and you may always be able to tell if a date matters or not. 

Lauren Gover
Lauren Gover

I personally like the expiration dates. I get so much discounted meats and products at the grocery stores! Take advantage of it!!! Saves you $$$!!!

Ish Frm Heights
Ish Frm Heights

Whats so hard about it, it just takes some COMMON SENSE PEOPLE!!!!


And, according to my teenage daughter, all mean "Turns into deadly poison on _______"

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