Take food 'sell by' dates with a grain of salt

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 26, 2013 - 8:16 PM


Like many Americans, Michelle Liss of Eden Prairie pays close attention to the “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” labels on the packaged and perishable foods in her kitchen.

“I get a little freaked out when an item is past the use by date,” she said. “I discard it when it isn’t fresh.”

Most people do the same thing, even though much of it is still perfectly good to consume. In fact, Americans have grown to rely so much on the food dating game since it was implemented in the 1970s that we now throw away 20 percent of our food, over 160 billion pounds of it per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It isn’t surprising that consumers take extra precautions when they hear regularly about salmonella, E. coli or other foodborne illnesses. But what started as a consumer demand that food be verifiably fresh has evolved into a confusing mishmash of laws that are different in each state. Only infant formula is regulated by the federal government.

The inconsistency is causing discarded food to be the largest single contributor to the nation’s landfills and costing Americans money, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. The average family of four that spends about $632 to $1,252 per month on groceries is throwing away about $112 to $190 each month on outdated food and restaurant leftovers, researchers concluded.

Obscene amounts of food are being wasted, consumer advocates argue, because of a misconception that eating food past its “use by” date is about safety, when it’s really about freshness.

Consumers are discarding items a day or two past their freshness date because they think the items are potentially harmful when they’re not, said Sarah Klein, an attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“It may not taste as good as it did the day before,” she said. “But it’s perfectly safe to eat. There’s no need to throw it away.”

The time to get rid of food is when it looks, smells or tastes bad, Klein said. In general, eat or freeze meat by its freshness date, and throw out fresh seafood when in doubt.

Minnesota has a requirement that foods with less than a 90-day shelf life must be date labeled. Products with a longer shelf life such as cereal are not required to be labeled if they are sold in Minnesota, but they almost always are because manufacturers want to be able to sell their products in states with stricter requirements, said Ted LaBuza, professor of Food Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota.

“Manufacturers put dates on nearly all of their food products because consumers want them,” he said.

But experts say that manufacturers deserve some blame for excess waste, too. Many consumers and some at the NRDC think that manufacturers are shortening the date span on their products to get consumers to buy more often, LaBuza said.

“There’s no state law telling manufacturers how to determine the freshness date, so they’re free to choose the dates they want,” he said. Nearly 70 percent of companies just follow what their competitors are doing, LaBuza said.

But shortening the “sell by” date range can also mean that supermarkets and wholesalers get stuck with food at its freshness date because safety- or freshness-conscious consumers won’t buy it. Many consumers reach to the back of a display for an item with the newest date and avoid others.

A home for old food

What happens to the older items? When they don’t sell, a retailer risks its reputation for freshness by not removing them. A supermarket can throw it out, but that’s often the most expensive choice with rising trash removal costs.

Some is returned to distributors and sold to food outlet stores. Mike’s Discount Foods in Anoka, Fridley and Hilltop, So Low in Minneapolis, and DealSmart in Little Canada and Mounds View sell the items near or past their freshness dates at 30 to 70 percent off retail.

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