Food Expiration Dates Not Necessarily the Last Word

Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report titled "The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America". The gist of it is something that most Americans can probably agree on: Labels on our food that seek to aid us are often very confusing.

Some labels state "sell by," which is presumably directed at the producer. Others have "use by" dates, which presumably inform consumers when food will go bad. Still other food labels read "best before," which implies that the item can still be eaten after the printed date, though it might not taste as good as it should.

The issue, according to the NRDC, is that these labels are "both poorly understood and surprisingly underregulated, such that their meanings and timeframes are generally not defined in law." What that means is that any producer can pretty much put any date or no date at all on its products, and consumers follow these dates without really knowing what they mean.

There is no comprehensive research on the amount of food waste generated by labeling systems (or lack thereof), but talk to any chef or market owner, and they'll tell you it's a big issue.

"It's the biggest rip-off there is," says Peter Basralian, controller, administrator and part-time chef at Phoenicia Foods. I had phoned Phoenicia to get in touch with the operations manager there, Raffi Tcholakian, but Basralian, who answered the call, was happy to give me an earful about the chaotic state of food labeling in America

"Expiration dates are premature from the actual dates they expire," Basralian says, echoing the findings of the NRDC. "We have to throw out so much food because of those dates."

Legally, restaurants and other businesses that sell food cannot use or sell consumables that are past their expiration, use-by, or sell-by dates, even if the food is clearly still safe for human consumption. When I did talk to Tcholakian, he confirmed what Basralian had said. He noted that at Phoenicia they don't really encounter issues with labeling their own fresh products, as most of it is off the shelves and replaced by new sandwiches or deli meat within a day or two.

"The issues we have are regarding the products we use," Tcholakian says. "I've eaten a lot of expired stuff myself that we can't sell, and it's still good. We give it away to homeless shelters and other organizations because we just can't sell it."

This practice is helpful to the shelters, of course, but it costs restaurants and businesses. Worse, though, is the effect that excess food production has on the environment. According to the NRDC's report, a 30 percent decrease in consumer waste could save an estimated 100 million acres of cropland. The report also points out that the production of wasted food in the U.S. consumes as much as 25 percent of America's fresh water supply.

Why so much waste?

Well, confusing labels are the biggest part of the problem. Federal law doesn't regulate, or even require, the use of date labels. The FDA and the USDA both have some power to create guidelines and regulate what producers do, but what they implement varies from state to state and organization to organization.

In Texas, only shellfish is subject to specific labeling laws. The law reads, "the dealer shall assure that each package containing less than 64 fluid ounces of fresh or frozen molluscan shellfish shall have [...] (2) a 'sell by date' which provides a reasonable subsequent shelf life or the words 'Best if used by' followed by a date when the product would be expected to reach the end of its shelf life." Anything else can be labeled or not labeled however companies see fit. Of course, it's in a company's best interest to make labels as clear as possible to prevent the possibility of human illness, but rumors abound that companies print expiration dates on items long before they actually expire as a means of selling more product. Unfortunately, there isn't any way to prove this.

Recently, Doug Rauch, the former president of the Trader Joe's grocery chain, decided to do something about all the excess food waste coming from stores, restaurants and homes. He's planning to open a market in Dorchester, Mass., the Daily Table, that will assemble expired or past-date foods and prepare and repackage them for retail sale. He says the store will open next year.

Rauch tells NPR that his goal is to "utilize this 40 percent of this food that is wasted. This is, to a large degree, excess, overstocked, wholesome food that's thrown out by grocers, etc. ... at the end of the day because of the sell-by dates."

The business will be a grocery store-restaurant hybrid selling prepared food primarily composed of past-date fruit and vegetable dishes. Rauch notes that food banks have been doing this sort of thing for years, and he thinks it's a great business model to make good, cheap food easily accessible, while simultaneously fighting food waste.

One of the best ways for individuals to combat food waste is, first of all, to use the dates as guidelines, not strict rules. Smell your food. Taste your food. Look at your food. Moldy fruits and vegetables probably won't taste great, but mold on cheese can be easily cut off to reveal perfectly good cheese underneath. If your milk smells sour, it probably is, but if it's one or two days past the expiration date and still smells fine, it is more than likely safe to drink. If you buy food from farmers' markets, talk to the sellers about their products. Knowing when an apple was picked will help you decide how long you think it should remain on your counter before you eat it. When you cook and eat, use your eyes and nose.

Still, most experts, and restaurant owners, agree that the government should be doing more.

"At Phoenicia, we try to educate our customers as much as we can," explains Tcholakian. "But I think it has to be regulated in the market, and no one's doing that yet."

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