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Should You Trust Food Expiration Dates?

Woman checking expiration sticker of food in the fridge.
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

It’s midnight, you suddenly crave a snack, and then you remember that package of yummy honey-baked deli ham in the fridge.

You open the fridge door, salivating, but when you extract said package you notice a troubling item on the label: The five-day-old expiration date. So you weigh the options: Shall I roll the dice? And if I do, might I experience a trip to the emergency room? Or a painful death?

This is a dilemma that Americans regularly experience, and many of them decide that they’d rather go hungry or eat something else than run afoul of the expiration date. So they toss the outdated food into the trash. But is this really keeping you safe?

Labels Create Wasted Food

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Americans waste a stupendous amount of food, throwing out about 133 billion pounds of it, worth about $161 billion, each year. Furthermore, the FDA estimates, about 20 percent of it is attributable to confusion over date labels.

Clearly, this is wasteful. And as a new study at Ohio State University contends, it’s also largely unnecessary. People misunderstand labels, place too much importance on them, and are throwing out a lot of perfectly good food as a consequence.

“No one knows what ‘use by’ and ‘best by’ labels mean,” says the study’s lead author, professor Brian Rose, “and people think they are a safety indicator when they are generally a quality indicator.”

So, why are food labels so confusing? Who is in charge here?

Perhaps surprisingly, it is not the U.S. government. The labels are voluntary creations of the food manufacturers themselves and have little legal bearing. Federal law requires that food in interstate commerce be “wholesome and fit for consumption,” but does not mention labels. If you get sick from eating food, the manufacturer may be liable, but the date on the label will have nothing to do with it. It’s also perfectly legal to sell foods past their sell-by dates.

Feds Could Step in

Apparently, there is broad awareness by the FDA and food producers that label confusion is resulting in significant waste, so plans are afoot to improve the situation. The result is a recently introduced bill in the U.S. House and Senate, the Food Date Labeling Act.

This bill would establish a uniform national date labeling system for all food products by giving food manufacturers a choice between two labels: “best if used by,” to indicate quality, and “use by,” which sets a date when food should be tossed.

Label clarity would be a good thing. But what if the food manufacturer screws up with the label and that yummy honey ham nearly kills you? Of course you can sue, but the expiration date will not be an issue. To succeed, you will need to show that your injuries were (a) substantial, and (b) the manufacturer or seller was responsible.

So if labels are of little current help, how can you determine whether the food in your fridge is safe? The best way is probably the old-fashioned way: use your nose, your eyes, and your common sense.

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