The Politics of Food

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?

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Kaitlin Steinberg