The lie of expired foods

The lie of expired foods and The dangerous truth about America’s food waste problem and the lie about “expired” food.

You might be used to it. Every once in a while, I go through my fridge, look at the labels, and throw out anything that is a month, a week, or even just a few days past the date on the label.

I might stop and sniff, but I’ve always thought that the problem was apparent: my jam, almond milk, or package of shredded Italian cheese blend had “expired,” and the solution was simple: throw it away.

This is such a habit that it makes me feel sick to think about eating food that is past its expiration date. I’ve only gotten sick from food once or twice, and it was always in a restaurant. However, I still have the idea that food that is past its expiration date will make me sick. I’m not likely to ever go dumpster diving.

The lie of expired foods

I know, on some level, that it’s probably wrong to throw away food. The numbers are terrible. Forty percent of the food made in the United States ends up in the trash or is wasted in some other way. That makes sense. A landmark study from 2013 was written by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The average American family throws away between $1,365 and $2,275 every year. It’s a substantial economic loss for food growers and stores, who often have to get rid of weirdly shaped produce or food that didn’t sell.

It is also bad for the environment. The study found that 25% of fresh water in the US is used to make food that isn’t eaten and that 21% of what goes into our landfills is food, which is a 50% increase per person since 1974. So, garbage dumps are full of food that could have been eaten, and some of it could still be eaten.

On top of that, I know that about 42 million people could be going hungry in the same country that throws away so much food. Yet, rules at the state level make it hard to give out-of-date food to food banks and other services.

America has a problem with wasting food. But I’m not always sure what that means for how I treat the food in my refrigerator. Because, well, what can you do? Isn’t it done when the date says it is?

It seems to be very wrong. Researchers have found that “expiration” dates, which rarely match when food spoils or sour, are usually well-meaning but confusing. In other words, they are not at all expiration dates. And the fact that most people don’t understand them is a big reason for all of the things I mentioned above: wasted food, wasted money, wasted household income, and food insecurity.

But you’re not the only one who throws away food based on the date on the label. It’s a common thing to do. Tamar Adler, a chef, journalist, and cookbook author who wrote An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace says that when people don’t know much about cooking, they think that any information they’ve been given must be the most important. Most of us don’t think we can tell if food is good for us, which is a big problem.

Adler said, “It’s hard to believe that you should trust your own nose and mouth.” “When you add that to the culture of convenience and the greedy late-stage capitalism, well, we’re screwed.”

The good news is that, in general, the problem wouldn’t be too hard to fix. The bad thing is that fixing the more extensive system will take time, education, and a change in how we use things. But almost everyone has a lot to gain, and an excellent place to start is to figure out what these labels mean and how to deal with them.

Everything you think you know about labels probably isn’t true.

However, there are two essential things to know about the dates on US food labels: They aren’t standardized and have almost nothing to do with making sure food is safe.

Date labels first appeared in the decades after World War II. More and more Americans moved away from shopping at small grocery stores and farms and toward supermarkets with their rows of packaged and curated options. At first, manufacturers put a date code on cans and packages so that grocery stores would know when to switch out their stock.

The label was not made with consumers in mind. But since people wanted to buy the freshest food on the shelf, intelligent people started putting out booklets with instructions on how to figure out what the codes meant.
When companies realized that shoppers did want to know what those secret dates were, they started putting dates on the packages that were easier to read, with the month, day, and year.

They thought it would be a great way to attract customers and show that the food was fresh and tasty. People liked it, and labels with an “open date” became common. But there wasn’t much that was the same about them.

Starting in the 1970s, the federal government tried to pass laws that would make these labels mean the same thing all over the country, but they failed. (The only exception is baby formula, for which the government has strict rules.) So instead, it was up to state (and sometimes local) governments, which made laws all over the place and often relied on voluntary industry standards.

So, for example, one state might not require labels at all, while another might require that the date on the freshness label on milk be 21 days after it was bottled, and a third might set the same date at 14 days. (In New York, where I live, there are laws about labels, but they don’t say anything about dates.

However, many companies still put dates on their products, and different cities and towns sometimes make their own rules.) Differences between states can be expensive for manufacturers, who have to develop ways to make different labels for different areas. But it’s also hard to understand for customers.

The labels are also not all the same. What the label means depends on the company that made it. So, one product might have a “best by” label, another might have a “sell by” label, and a third might say “best if used before” These words mean different things, but the average consumer might not realize that right away or even notice that there is a difference.

Even among brands of the same food, like peanut butter or strawberry jam, these dates might not be the same. Part of the reason is that they’re not meant to show when food is safest. Most packaged foods are still good weeks or months after their expiration date.

Foods that are canned or frozen last for years. The chips you forgot about that are a month past their expiration date won’t kill you, but they might not be as crunchy as you’d like.

Foods like deli meats and salads, which won’t be reheated before being eaten and can pick up listeria during production, are a big exception, but they’re not the rule. You can tell if an egg is fresh by putting it in a glass of water and trying to float it.

If it sinks, it’s good. Likewise, pathogen-free milk that has been adequately pasteurized should be fine if it tastes and smells fine. But even when we mean well, many of us look at the date on the label and throw out what’s old.

Is this some trick?

When I first learned that dates weren’t linked directly to scientifically-backed safety standards but rather to a more subjective, voluntary, and vague standard of “freshness,” I thought it was a scam. After all, customers don’t benefit from throwing away food, grocers lose money, and farmers miss out on possible sources of income.

Producers would be the only ones to benefit, and I could see a shady company shortening the date on their food so that people will sigh, throw out a half-eaten package that has “expired,” and go buy more.

I asked Emily Broad Leib about this. She is the director of the Food and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School and the lead author of the 2013 study. She laughed and said that I wasn’t the only one who wondered if we were being tricked.

But, she said, manufacturers would say, “They have a good reason: they want you to eat things when they taste the best.” How they figure out that date can vary.

For example, a big company might hold a focus group with customers to figure out the date, while a small company might take a guess. But the most important thing is that the “best by” date rarely tells you if the food is safe or if it could make you sick.

Broad Leib says that let’s say you buy a particular brand of yogurt and wait until it’s just a little bit past its best. Then, you might decide that you don’t like this yogurt brand and buy a different one next time. She said that one reason for the dates is to “protect the brand.” Their main goal is to get you to eat the food when they think it should taste that way.

But that doesn’t mean that the way we buy and eat food isn’t to blame, and food producers don’t have to be sneaky to be part of the problem.

The fact that so many of us think that a “best by” date means “bad after” is partly due to a lack of education, and manufacturers haven’t done much to change this. “It’s in the best interest of anyone who wants to sell something to keep spreading the idea that our foods are always going bad,” Adler said. “Half as much food could be bought.”

Adler said that we tend to buy more than we need and then throw out food that is just a little bit past its prime because we have a consumer mindset. But, she said, “That only makes sense if your cultural value is unchecked growth and making money at any cost.” “There’s no other way that throwing things away makes sense.”

She said that it was the opposite of what most food cultures do. “The idea that mold and bacteria should be avoided at all costs goes against good cooking, and in most cultures, it’s not even done.” All kinds of foods get better with age, like salami, cheese, pickles, sauerkraut, etc. “In most cuisines of the world, there isn’t as much difference between new food and old food; they’re just ingredients you’d use differently,” she said. There are still places in the United States where people still make kimchi, half-sours, and farm cheese. But, over time, we’ve come to believe that these natural things are bad and will make us sick. Instead, we rely on companies to tell us what food is good for us and when we should get rid of it.

Adler says that our growing “food as status performance” culture may also be a part of the problem. This is when certain foods become popular on social media or when food media keeps telling us to buy new ingredients to make something we saw in a picture or on TikTok. But, she said, “That doesn’t help anyone trying to cook with what they have.” “If they don’t have all the parts for the viral thing, what they do have will just sit there while they go get the rest of the parts.”

Our shopping habits are also to blame.

Consumers are not the only ones affected by the problem. Some states don’t let grocery stores give or sell out-of-date food to food banks or other services that help people who don’t have enough food to eat. The thinking is logical and even kind: Why would we give “poor” people food that isn’t good? Why would I give “expired” food to someone else if I wouldn’t eat it myself? In addition, distributors worry about legal threats if someone eats food past its expiration date and gets sick. This hasn’t happened often, but it’s still a threat.

This is made worse by how Americans shop. Think about it: How often do you see a grocery store shelf, bin, or freezer that isn’t full? The reason grocery stores have more food than they can sell is the purpose.

Broad Leib told me that it’s common for supermarkets to plan for “shrink,” or food they expect to go to waste. As a result, shoppers in the US look at an empty shelf or a few potatoes left in the bin with suspicion.

“You can see it from the consumer’s point of view,” she said. “When you go to a store, you want to find everything you want there. You’d go somewhere else if you went in and they didn’t have what you wanted.” We may not even realize it, but we’ve trained ourselves to think that full crates of beets and shelves of salad dressing mean that the store is good and, therefore, that the food in it is good. Quantity is a sign of quality.

But that way of always thinking, even constantly, leads to waste. You have to throw away milk that you can’t sell by the sell-by date in many places. People don’t want to buy a box of Cheez-Its that’s only good for a week. Beef that “goes bad” won’t sell like hotcakes in two days. And if you can’t sell all of your carrots, some of them will start to get a little crooked. Many grocery stores will only sell fruit and vegetables that look a certain way.

There are no apples or sweet potatoes that look like they came from another planet, and everything should be the same size and shape. Also, if a company changes the label on a package of cookies, the old packages will probably just be thrown away to keep everything the same.

Adler said, “Most of the decisions about most of the foods we eat are made for reasons that have nothing to do with how tasty or healthy the food is or anything else about the food itself.” “The leaves on vegetables wilt before the stalk, so it’s much easier for grocery stores to cut off the leaves at some point in the process.

If you don’t, you have to keep sprinkling and cutting them.” So the leaves of some vegetables that are perfectly good to eat may also be thrown away when they could have been used to feed people.

Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods are two businesses that have sprung up to solve this more significant problem. They make deals with food producers to buy “ugly” or “too small” or “too big” food that we’ve been taught to think is ugly or too small or too big and then sell it to customers.

They also buy food close to its expiration date and resell it to customers to reduce food waste and change how people eat. Reilly Brock, the associate creative director at Imperfect Foods, told me over the phone, “It’s all about busting myths.” “Cinderella is not food. If it gets to the date on the label, it won’t turn back into a pumpkin by midnight.”

But this is still what the average American consumer does everywhere in the country. First, go to the grocery store in a big way to buy food from the shiny displays. Then, when food goes bad, throw it away. As a result, farmers are plowing ugly produce back into the ground or letting it rot in the field, and stores are throwing away food close to or past its expiration date because they have nowhere else to send it.

Can we make a change?
Why doesn’t the government take care of the issue?

The lie of expired foods

The follow-up data to the 2013 Harvard study showed that making the date labeling system the same all over the country, instead of leaving it up to different local governments to handle randomly, could be very good for the economy and consumers. It says that if the US had standardized laws, the economy would be better off by about $1.8 billion. Also, about 398,000 tons of food waste that would have gone to landfills would be used to feed people instead.

But it has been harder to fix. Since the 1970s, Congress has introduced different bills to update and standardize the system from time to time. But Broad Leib told me that it could be hard to win.

“The last administration and Congress were pretty good at getting rid of rules,” she said. Since the 2013 study, many states have passed laws to make their dates more consistent, even if they don’t match dates in other states.

Broad Leib and her colleagues say that businesses, especially national ones, would be better off if they tried to meet one federal standard instead of different standards in different states. However, it can be hard to get past philosophical differences.

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“When you’re in a government that wants to loosen rules, even if the rule is good, they’ll tell you, “Let industry take care of it. They have a standard that they can choose to follow, so we don’t need to step in.'”

Also, Congress takes a long time to do things. “They don’t have a lot of small bills that can be used on their own,” she said. “So the best way for this to become law is to hitch a ride on a moving train. Much of our work has been to say, “Here are other bills that are moving along,” like the US Farm Bill or the Child Nutrition Act, “and here’s how to date labeling fits in with them.”

Since Broad Leib and her colleagues first published their study, a lot has changed.

When the Consumer Brands Association and the Food Marketing Institute saw the problem, they put together a group of people to develop a standard date label that would work for both businesses and consumers.

Broad Leib told me, “They came up with a ‘best if used by date for quality and a ‘use-by date for safety.” “They got a lot of their members to agree to switch to those dates on their own.”

In other words, the “best if used by” label is used when food might lose some of its taste but not its safety. The “use by” label is used when the food might become unsafe to eat. That system is similar to a standard used in many other places.

She says that this could make it easier for the government to act. “It would be very easy for Congress, the FDA, or the USDA to say, ‘Here’s what the standard label should say. We have some information about what consumers like.

We know that these are good for business.” But she says that the new label standard is more of a “halfway solution” because the label will still only be on some products.

It’s not just about laws. The way people live has to change.

The lie of expired foods

And until a better solution comes along, the best thing we can do is try to learn more and change the way we buy food.

Broad Leib says that the system as it is now could be made better in three significant ways. First, it would be helpful to have standard labels that show either a “best by” date or a “risk date.”

But the second part is just as important: we need a public health program to teach people what foods are safe to eat.

The UK has worked with the food industry on several campaigns with the slogan “Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste” to help people know when to keep food and when to throw it away.

The third part would change how we accept food donations and give them out through food banks and other means. That means we have to change the way we think. If everyone eats food past its “freshness” date, knowing that it is safe but may not be at its best, people will be less afraid to give that food away and less afraid of getting in trouble with the law.

That could significantly affect food insecurity and hunger in the US. Broad Leib said, “If everyone agrees that those foods are fine to eat and everyone eats them, then it’s not like, ‘Post-dated food is only for people who can’t afford food.'” “No, that’s what we should all eat.”

But that means we all have to change the way we think about food. We need to start believing what our senses tell us about food. “Use your sense organs,” Adler said. “We have them so we can figure out if things in the world are going to kill us, so we can make sure we’re not going to poison ourselves and die. It’s even worth doing when you think something is bad, because feeling your body’s reaction is so reassuring.”

We need to ask for labels that are easier to understand, push for better laws, and talk to each other about what labels mean. And we need to get closer to food again, thinking of it less as a packaged product and more as something natural that makes us healthy.

And for me, that means I’m going to start smelling what’s in my fridge before I throw it away, and I might even eat it.



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