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Louisa Kasdon: Expiration dates can be misleading. A much more reliable indicator of whether products have gone bad? Your nose. (Reid Rosenberg/ flickr)

You know “sell-by” dates? Also known as “use-by” dates, or the more euphemistic “enjoy-by” dates. Whatever you call them, it turns out most of them are marketing malarkey with a slim relationship to ensuring that food is actually fresh and safe to eat.

A state-by-state brief prepared by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic reveals that sell-by dates are not government required or regulated but have become enshrined in our food and consuming culture that has forgotten how to buy smart, cook efficiently, and sniff out foodstuffs gone bad.

Food waste and food rescue, are the new hot topics in the food conversation. And they should be. It’s becoming a moral dilemma. The magnitude of food left on the table is remarkable, especially in a world with so much food insecurity.

Worldwide we lose almost 40 percent of the food we grow and process. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 20 percent of all fish caught worldwide is thrown out before the boat even gets to the dock. Some of the problems are structural. Delays caused by labor, transportation and other factors keep food from getting to the consumer before it spoils.

A major step forward is to ignore the sell-by dates. Forget the date on the label. Use your nose and eyes as a guide instead.

But according to journalist Jonathan Bloom, author of “American Wasteland,” who spoke at a recent public forum presented by the Food Law and Policy Clinic, approximately 25 percent of all food waste occurs at the household level. The average American family of four throws away an estimated $2,000 worth of food each year. As a country, that means we waste about $100 billion of food annually.

Jose Alvarez, a former president of Stop & Shop, was also a panelist at Harvard’s event. He says that as a nation we produce twice the number of calories we need to consume, and that has created a “culture of cheap abundance,” which has in turn “encouraged food waste.” Many drivers are beyond our individual control. But Alvarez suggests solutions to reduce food waste at the household level: buying smaller quantities, cooking more, becoming smarter about using our freezers to extend food life, and actually eating our leftovers.

A major step forward is to ignore the sell-by dates. Forget the date on the label. Use your nose and eyes as a guide instead. Take a sip of the milk; turn limp vegetables into soup or stew.

Sell-by dates began as a method of inventory control for store managers, a way to stock grocery aisles more efficiently. But the dates have now morphed into a marketing tool with a harmful ripple effect. They cause producers to churn out more inventory, stores to waste more food, and motivate the rest of us to throw perfectly good food down the disposal.

None of this improves food safety or public health. Food borne illnesses rarely come from old food. Listeria, salmonella and other nasty things are not the result of an extended sojourn in our refrigerators.

Doug Rauch, a former CEO of Trader Joe’s, has been working on a wholesale to retail solution for food waste. He is creating an outlet for rescuing imperfect and/or outdated food from supermarkets and producers.

“TJ Maxx lives on overstocks!” Rauch says. “Grocery stores are designed so that there is overstock every day and there is no outlet store system. We have to be able to do something about that.”

If we can reduce our own household waste, maybe we can reverse the ripple effect and scale back the mountain of perfectly good food that we throw away.

Rauch, who was also a panelist at the recent event at Harvard, lays some of the blame for waste on our litigious society. “The truth is that grocery stores are extremely conservative, and the short shelf life for food is intended to protect the store, not the consumer.”

But it has the reverse effect. When consumers see food on the shelf with a nearing expiration date, they assume the store is trying to fob off old food.

When Alvarez was at Stop & Shop, he says the company decided to set their use-by date window two days shorter than their competitors, thinking that consumers would appreciate getting fresher food. No such luck. Shoppers thought the food was that much closer to the expiration date.

Truth be told, I am a recovering expiration date addict.

Growing up with a mother who didn’t believe that any food was beyond salvage, we’d routinely have to scrape a blue layer of fuzz off the cottage cheese before scooping it into a bowl.

Somehow in spite of my upbringing, I started to believe if milk was more than two days beyond the use-by date, it might cause my own children harm. But I am re-thinking my label fanaticism. I know now we’re not going to explode — or get perilously ill — by using mayonnaise that’s past its enjoy-by date. If it smells or tastes off — that’s a different story. But that’s why I have a sense of smell and taste buds.

Let’s use both our common sense and our natural senses about expiration dates. If we can reduce our own household waste, maybe we can reverse the ripple effect and scale back the mountain of perfectly good food that we throw away.

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Tags: Environment, Law

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • http://twitter.com/hillsmagills1 Hillary Lyon

    How can I become a part of this?

  • Becky Lee

    I ignore expiration labels. I always sniff & eyeball food. If it doesn’t smell spoiled or have mold on it, I assume it’s safe. I test eggs by putting them in water. If they float, I pitch. My cousins are obsessed with expiration dates. I can’t believe the food they throw away because something’s a day past the expiration date.

  • Joan Squeri, HCC Consulting

    Lousia, Thanks for this great article. More about this topic, please!

    I found similar loss of ‘self trust’ around recognizing food spoilage when talking with the public about canning fruits in Farmer Markets. ‘Sell By’ is an enormous campaign designed– as Doug so aptly points out –to protect the store not the consumer. Litigiousness is a big disincentive for things to change.
    Food pantries are so in need of this ‘second round’ food–of fresh and especially of meat. Common sense protections are needed.

  • leediya

    Great eye opening article. However, as a nation our obsession for packaged foods has been on the rise. Packaged foods as such have harmful effects let alone after they are expired as suggested by the manufacturer. Totally in agreement with the article for fresh foods, and milk.
    Lets do something together as a nation and save some food for the poorer ones.

  • Joe Wheeler

    Great insights, as always, Louisa. I know of one supermarket chain that regularly donates food items to those in need. And I’m still pretty rigid with dates on uncooked eggs – since I’ve been sickened by them more than once.

  • Geoff Dutton

    Louisa might have mentioned supersizing groceries. For example. warehouse stores such as BJs and Costco promote food waste by requiring customers to buy greater quantities of foods than they can use before they “expire.” Who needs to buy 3 gallons of milk?

  • MikeLaBonte

    Who prints those dates, and what is the starting point they are calculated from? Do packagers print it when they package? Do stores print it based on when they receive the items? The story about Stop & Shop experimenting with different use-by dates is interesting, because it implies the latter. Maybe it would help just to know when an item was packaged, but then again maybe people would be mortified to know, for some foods.

  • Vicki

    I am an expiration date addict and never knew that was a bad thing. Thank you for waking me up. My grandmother taught me I didn’t have to refrigerate everything the way most Americans do, but I was in the dark about sell-by dates. I don’t think it will be easy to kick my habit, but I’m going to try.

  • sternhead

    If a lot more packaged-in-plastic dry foods like cereal and stove top stuffing were packed in nitrogen-filled plastic impervious to oxygen diffusion, the shelf life could increase by a year or two. The body oxidizes food for energy, and our evolved olfactory sense tells us when food value has been oxidized away before hitting the tongue, i.e has turned rancid. Fried foods like potato chips are packed under N2, since fats are highly susceptible, and the level of rancidity could otherwise be objectionable before they even land on store shelves. But I suspect manufacturers would lose profits on expiry turnover with foods having a slower rancidity curve, and just stick with plain old air inside low density polyethylene bags, which O2 passes through with ease anyway.

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