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Food Labels: Don't Believe the 'Use By' Date


Do you throw out food when it's past the "use by" or "sell by" date on the label, thinking it's no longer safe to eat?

Then you're making the same mistake that 91 percent of Americans - myself included - make: namely, prematurely tossing billions of pounds of food (and wasting lots of money) every year because we think those dates indicate food safety.

In actuality, the dates stamped on food products are set by manufacturers primarily to help retailers rotate inventory or to indicate to consumers when a product is at peak quality for taste. The dates have nothing to do with food safety.

Yet most consumers believe otherwise, says a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic, which is not surprising considering the "dizzying array of food expiration date labeling practices."

"Date labeling is not a system at all," said NRDC staff scientist Dana Gunders in a teleconference Wednesday with reporters. "It's a mess."

Consumer confusion about what the dates mean lead many to "throw out perfectly good food,"  wasting money and natural resources and adding to the nation's growing landfills and environmental problems, researchers said.

The report estimates that the average U.S. family of four probably wastes $450 a year on food that's needlessly thrown away because of confusion over date labels. Nationally, an estimated 40 percent of food is never eaten in the U.S., racking up $165 billion in losses.

Adding to the problem is a confusing patchwork of state rules regarding date labeling on food - rules that stymie both retailers and manufacturers, said Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic.

For example, 41 states require some sort of date labeling, but nine don't. And 20 states restrict stores from selling products after a "use by" date, but 30 states don't.

The only product for which the "use by" phrase is federally regulated is infant formula, and that's because the nutrients decline, not because the product spoils, the report notes.

"We need a standardized, commonsense labeling system," said Broad Leib, who added that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration both have the power to regulate dates on labels, "but have left it up to the manufacturers mostly."

On the other hand, the mishmash of dates hasn't posed a health threat to consumers. "I know of no food poisoning outbreak from people eating out-of-date food," as long as it's stored properly, said food-safety expert Ted Labuza, professor of food science and engineering at the University of Minnesota, who has been studying this problem for decades.

David Fikes, vice president for consumer/community affairs with the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), which represents food retailers and wholesalers, agrees there is widespread "consumer confusion about using the dates on labels."

Consumers should know that "they are not a discard date" but rather an indication of optimal quality, he said in an interview. He thinks more consumer education about the dates is needed, not a new system or more regulations.

FMI has worked with the USDA on " Food Keeper," a way for consumers to find out the optimum time that foods should be stored for freshness and quality. You can also check the handy guide to refrigerator and freezer storage times for food on the website.

Photo: Courtesy Dana Gunders, Natural Resources Defense Council


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