In issuing a recent guidance document, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made clear that “sell-by” or “expiration” dates on eggs are not a federal regulation. However, some state laws may either require or prohibit using a “sell-by” date. (Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Do you know what the heck “best by” means? No, not the store that sells electronics but the label on food that is followed by a date. How about labels that say “best if used by June 20, 2017” or “sell by “June 20, 2017”? What are you supposed to do with the food after June 20, 2017? Eat it, smell it, cook it or toss it? Do you find such labels to be confusing? Well, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) does and is trying to do something about it.

Deciding whether to eat something before these printed dates is probably fairly easy. Hungry? Yes. Like food? Yes. Do not currently have something in your mouth? Yes. Then OK to shove into mouth. (Unless it’s raw meat, then you should cook it.) But what if you’re already past these printed dates…which is often the case? Unless you live on Aisle 2 inside a supermarket, you undoubtedly face the “use versus toss” decision many, many times. What have you done when food is past this date? Eaten it anyway? Cooked it for hours? Fed it to your significant other? Or thrown it in the garbage?

Labels would certainly be clearer to consumers if they said “use or vomit by this date.” Or “diarrhea starts here.” Or “if you try eating after June 3, you will die of food poisoning.” Or “after this date, feed only to people whom you do not like.” Of course, such dates are almost impossible to predict to such an exact degree. Bacteria and other microbes are like really bored, really small people who have no plans but like to party. Once enough of them enter a food item, they start a rave and then take over. Predicting exactly when the nightclub will transform into a rave is difficult.

Of course, food poisoning is very common, with approximately 48 million cases in the United States each year (which is probably an underestimate from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and therefore an important consideration. A number of microbes can cause food poisoning, including the aptly named B. cereus. (“Really, you are missing work because of vomiting and diarrhea? B. cereus.“) Making sure that food is either consumed or tossed before microbes have had time to rave is one way to avoid food poisoning (here are some others). However, the printed “best by” or “use by” dates tend to occur well before this time.

Food date labeling currently mainly accounts for the many steps and time involved in getting food from its source to where it is sold. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

How about a more conservative “toss by,” “discard by,” “do not use by,” “not in your mouth by” or “you are stupid if you eat this by” date? That would certainly be more straightforward. But right now, most food labeling is voluntary with the exception of baby formula (although some states have food labeling regulations). When food manufacturers decide to put a date on food, they focus mainly on what happens prior to the food reaching the store. Remember that food takes a journey to reach a store. In most cases, the cows, farms and any other food origin isn’t located on the supermarket premises. Instead food has to travel from its source through a complex series of processing plants, storage locations, vehicles, personnel and steps to get to the point of sale. Therefore, the date on the package is typically not really an expiration date for eating and just accounts for all the steps that brought the food to the store. These labelled dates help the stores know when to pull items from the shelves or mark down prices to get rid of them.

Do food suppliers and retailers currently have incentives to put real expiration dates for food, similar to those for baby formula? At first glance, not really. Determining true expiration dates can be somewhat challenging. People do all kinds of silly and not-so-silly things with food that can contaminate and shorten the lifetime of food such as sneeze and touch the food and leave the food out in the open. Suppliers and retailers may worry that expiration dates may open up opportunities for lawsuits, such as people getting sick from eating food prior to their expiration dates. Therefore, “expiration dates” may need accompanying qualifiers such as “if the product has been stored and handled properly” or “if the product has remained refrigerated” or “toss by December 20 unless you left this in the car for a while because you had to run to the bathroom after getting back from the store and then forgot about the groceries for a day while YouTubing.”

In fact, the conservative and somewhat vague “best if used by” dates probably result in people tossing out a lot food before its time, which from the retailers’ and suppliers’ perspective simply means you have to buy more food. So, as long as you are willing to fork up the cash to buy more food, everything’s peachy, right? (By the way, you can keep peaches in the pantry for a few days until ripe, up to 3-5 days in the refrigerator once ripe, and up to a year in freezer.)

Not exactly. Tossing food before its time is literally throwing money into the garbage. The average American household spends over $2,000 annually on wasted food. That’s over 330 Star Wars figurines that you could have bought each year. (Your number of figures may vary depending on the retailer and the specific figurines that you want. Jar-Jar Binks figurines are less desired, objects of ridicule and cheaper.)Studies have shown that 20% of consumer food waste occurs because people are confused by date labels, and 84% of American consumers report that they discard food close to or past the date on the package. Think you don’t do this? Well, then you have lots of company. As Marie Spiker, MSPH, RD, from the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC)and a Center for a Livable Future Lerner Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found, “In a nationwide survey, 75% of Americans thought that they wasted less than the average American. These numbers clearly don’t add up.” This study authored by Roni Neff, PhD, MS, Spiker and Patricia L. Truant, MPH, CPHappeared in the journal PLoS ONE. Think you are better than most Americans? Maybe not.

Food waste also affects everyone…well, at least, everyone who pays taxes. As ReFed explains, “Today, the United States spends $218 billion a year growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten.” According to a publication in the USDA-ERS Economic Information Bulletin, almost a third (31%) of the U.S.’s post-harvest food supply goes to waste at the retail and consumer levels, which translates to 133 billion pounds of food each year, or 141 trillion calories per year, or 1,249 calories per person per day. In technical terms, that’s a bleeping lot of food…and money. There are also many environmental issues, as food production and waste leads to pollution and social equity issues because people are tossing food while many people can’t even get food. But we won’t delve into these issues because no one cares about them these days, right? (The study by Neff, Spiker and Truant found that consumers are much more motivated to reduce household food waste by the prospect of saving money than they are by saving the environment).

What’s the USDA doing about the food labeling and food waste issue? In a press release, Al Almanza, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, explained that the USDA has issued new guidance: “In an effort to reduce food loss and waste, these changes will give consumers clear and consistent information when it comes to date labeling on the food they buy. This new guidance can help consumers save money and curb the amount of wholesome food going in the trash.” Most of the new guidance focuses on making clear that these labels are indicators of “quality” rather than “safety,” except in the case of infant formulas. For example, the FSIS is now recommending using “Best If Used By” instead of words such as “Sell by” and “Use by” to lesson any misunderstanding that this has anything to do with safety. The USDA also re-emphasizes that for all foods besides infant formula, it does not require or regulate such labels.

It’s OK to eat food beyond the “sell-by” or “best if used by” date. Use other guidance and your own inspection to determine if food is safe. (Photo: Shutterstock)

So, remember you can safely eat food past the “Best If Used By” date. To evaluate the safety of food, instead use other calculations and observations. For example, if you know that you have about seven days after the “best if used by” date on a bag of spinach, then try to eat it within a week. Whenever you have a suspicious piece of food in your refrigerator (meaning one that has been there for a while, not one that may have wronged you), search the Internet for how long you can actually keep that fruit…beyond the “Best If Used By” date. Stick to reputable websites, because…surprise, there are fake websites out there.

Also, learn to inspect food yourself and for clues that tell you about safety and not “quality,” whatever quality really means. Eating is not a beauty pageant. You don’t have to always have the best-looking piece of food. As Spiker explains: “In anticipation of our desire for perfect-looking produce, substantial amounts of food are discarded by retailers or are never harvested at all.” Sounds a bit like some people and dating.

Food waste is, well, such a big waste. The ongoing and growing problem eats at your and all taxpayers’ wallets. Therefore, if you want to save money, get everyone to understand and heed this new USDA guidance as soon as possible…best if done by today.

Courtesy – Forbes