Food for Thought

A container of yogurt six months past its "expiration date" might be one of the oldest things I’ve eaten. Then again, that piece of cheddar, carefully pruned of mold, I had last week might have been older. My husband will tell you with a cringe that I’m much more likely to excavate something from the back of the fridge, give it a sniff, and decide to eat it only if the smell doesn’t knock me out.

"Better By," but Still Good

I don’t give much weight to meaningless dates. All you need to do is look at the inconsistency of these labels to know how little they mean: "Best Before," "Sell By," "Use By," "EXP," or my favorite, "Enjoy By." These ambiguous terms are not a reliable indication of how long food will keep, but they do mean that 90 percent of consumers say they toss food because of safety concerns.

The truth is that these dates are really a "best guess." Most are invented by food manufacturers, many of which are small companies that don’t have the means to conduct food-longevity studies. They pick a date, maybe based on some knowledge (but maybe not), and slap it on the package.

Better by, but still good after

No Food Date Regulation

They do this because the U.S. government doesn’t regulate expiration dates on anything but infant formula, although the Department of Agriculture admits that dates aren't a guide for safe use of a product. But why would anyone know to ignore the date on the package? Most reasonable people would read an expiration date on food the way they would the expiration date on a coupon. The upshot is that stores and consumers throw food away on a mass scale, contributing to the estimated 40 percent of food that goes uneaten in the United States.

Look at Montana’s strict milk policy, which says that stores need to remove milk from shelves – and dump rather than donate it – just 12 days after pasteurization. Most milk producers recognize that milk is good for three weeks after pasteurization, and most people who drink milk know that it’s still good for a while after that, as long as it’s not left on the counter for too long.

Never mind the miserable thought of all that milk going into the sewer; milk in Montana is significantly more expensive, as much as dollar or two more per gallon than in neighboring states. That’s a shame, given that people are hungry – one in seven Americans, according to the USDA. Food is expensive enough as it is, without people and stores throwing away perfectly edible items because of a meaningless date.

Grassroots Grocery Efforts

Thankfully, there are a few efforts to avoid this kind of waste, notably Daily Table, a nonprofit that sells "expired" groceries to people in Dorchester, Mass. Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, decided to do something about all the food he saw going into dumpsters. So, in 2014, he started rescuing groceries and selling them at a reduced price.

Sustainable America is another organization that’s pushing for better education about the longevity of food, especially via its consumer-focused I Value Food website. It includes tips like how to use extra garden vegetables, how to host a "salvaged dinner party," and resources like the Produce Storage Cheat Sheet.

Efforts like these are a start, and with the lack of any reliable government guidelines, they’re about all we have to cut down on food waste and help more people eat right while reducing their grocery bills. Community health workers and other front line health workers have an important role to play here, both in connecting individuals to resources like those on IValueFood or stores like Daily Table, and also in educating people in how long food will actually last. Or, as my mom taught me, trust your nose. If it smells OK, it probably is.

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