Originally appeared in Presence Marketing News, July 2019
By Steven Hoffman
“I mean, I ate heavy cream I think 10 weeks past date, and then meat sometimes a good month past its date. It didn’t smell bad. Rinse it off, good to go,” Scott Nash shared with the Washington Post in a June 18, 2019, interview. Nash is the founder and CEO of MOM’s Organic Market based in Rockville, MD, with 19 stores in four Eastern states. According to the Post, Nash consumed yogurt months after the expiration date printed on the label, and tortillas a year past their expiration date. It was all part of his year-long experiment to test the limits on food that had passed its expiration date. Nash blogged about that experiment in February 2019.
Of course, you can get very sick eating expired food, but more often than not we're throwing away food that is perfectly safe to eat. Some foods, such as deli meats, unpasteurized milk and cheeses, and prepared foods like potato salad that you don't reheat, probably should be thrown away after their “Use By” date for safety reasons. However, in many cases, the Post reports, expiration dates do not indicate when the food stops being safe to eat; rather, they tell you when the manufacturer thinks that particular product will stop looking and tasting its best.
Why does it matter? A lot of good, safe food gets thrown away, generating unnecessary food waste in landfills and greenhouse gas emissions. The FDA estimates that we throw out a third of our food, worth $161 billion a year, and the agency believes that confusion over expiration dates may be contributing a significant portion of that waste, reported Popular Science.
In an effort to find a solution for clearer package date labels, in 2017, the grocery industry, led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, announced a voluntary standard on food-date labeling. Together, they narrowed a number of date-label terms down to two: "Best if Used By" and "Use By." "Best if used by" describes product quality, meaning that the product might not taste as good past the date but is safe to eat. "Use by" is for products that are highly perishable and should be used or disposed of by that date.
To help dispel confusion, the FDA announced on May 23, 2019, that it is supporting the food industry’s efforts to standardize the use of the term “Best if Used By” on its packaged food labeling “if the date is simply related to optimal quality – not safety,” said the agency in a statement. Studies have shown that this best conveys to consumers that these products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly, the agency said. “We expect that over time, the number of various date labels will be reduced as industry aligns on this ‘Best if Used By’ terminology,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response. “This change is already being adopted by many food producers.”
When it comes to food safety, the FDA said that manufacturers can put whatever terminology they want to convey health risk. While the FDA is encouraging manufacturers to use "Best if Used By" terminology as a best practice, it is not required by law. There is no federal law that requires dates on food, except for infant formula, which is required to bear a “Use By” date, reports the FDA. Other industry experts have suggested using language that indicates shelf life after opening or the date when the product was packed.
“They’re trying to bring clarity to the descriptor of the date,” MOM’s Organic Market’s Scott Nash said. “OK, that’s great, that’s better than what we have now. But I think some things just shouldn’t be dated.”
FDA advises consumers to routinely examine foods that are past their “Best if Used By” date to determine if the quality is sufficient for use. “If the products have changed noticeably in color consistency or texture, consumers may want to avoid eating them,” FDA advises. FDA also developed a FoodKeeper App for Apple and Android phones, designed to promote understanding of food and beverage storage to maximize freshness and quality.
FDA says its efforts are part of a White House initiative called Winning on Food Waste, a collaboration between the FDA, USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency to educate consumers on ways to reduce food waste and how to do it safely without risking illness from consuming spoiled food.
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