Confusion Over Food Expiration Dates is Costing Consumers a Bundle


A new report out of the UK shows that a staggering amount of food is being wasted — and a primary reason is consumers’ confusion over food expiration dates.

The study, conducted by the Waste & Resources Action Programme, found that the average UK family is wasting the equivalent of six meals a week. In the process, they are throwing away nearly £60 a month, or almost $100 a month in U.S. dollars.

In the United States, the situation isn’t any better. A recent survey by the Harvard Food Law and Poverty Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food each year — as much as $1,500 worth of food every year per household. Confusion about the expiration dates on food packages was cited as a key reason for the waste.

In fact, the U.S. study found that 90% of consumers dispose of food by the “use-by” date. As we’ve noted before, the dates on food labels usually have nothing to do with food safety. Here, the real facts about food expiration dates:

•     In the United States, Use-By, Best if Used By, Best By and Best Before dates are provided voluntarily by the manufacturer and tell you how long the product is likely to remain at its absolute best quality when unopened. But, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service points out, they are not safety dates.

After the “best by” or "use by" date has passed, you may start to notice gradual changes in the unopened product’s texture, color, or flavor. But as long as you’ve been storing the unopened item properly, you can generally consume it beyond this date. To find out the exact shelf life information for specific foods, check our Keep It or Toss It database.

•     Sell-By dates are usually found on perishables like meat, seafood, poultry, milk and eggs. The date is a guide for stores to know how long they can display a particular product. You should buy the product before the sell-by date expires. But you can still store it at home for some time beyond that date, as long as you follow safe storage procedures.

For instance, eggs that have been continuously refrigerated will usually remain safe for about three to five weeks after the "sell by" or “expiration” date on the package. And milk will usually remain drinkable for about one week after the "sell by" date.

•     Expires On: The only place you’re likely to encounter this type of date is on infant formula and some baby foods, which are the only food products the federal government regulates with regard to dating. You should always use the product before this expiration date has passed.

The bottom line: understanding the true meaning behind food expiration dates can help you waste less food — and save a considerable amount of money.


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