Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"They're More Like Guidelines": On Best-By and Sell-By Dates

Did you know that it's estimated that 40% of America's food is thrown away? I'm not entirely sure how this statistic was figured, but I don't doubt that we Americans waste a lot of food. (When I was a dishwasher at various restaurants during my early teenage years, I was shocked at how much food was left on people's plates. How could someone leave half of a New York strip on their plate?!) If the statistic is correct, it definitely deserves attention and certainly some introspection on our parts, considering how many hungry people there are in other areas of the world.

Some of the articles I read on this statistic, though, painted Americans as greedy and gluttonous, as if to shame us all into wasting less. I don't think this is always the case.  I think there's a sort of spectrum of food wasting types. There are some people who truly are flippant and/or lazy. Some people waste food because they're picky (there are a lot of people who won't touch leftovers. Apparently food that is good enough for dinner is unpalatable the next day...). 

Honestly, though, I think the biggest factors that leads people to waste food is misinformation. I admit I was a misinformed food waster. This leads to my food wasting confessional: I used to throw out food solely based on the dates printed on the labels.

I never questioned the expiration (or sell by or best by) dates printed on food. I figured the producers of the food knew more than I did and I trusted those dates without question. I've wasted a lot of milk and yogurt, among other things, because of those dates on the labels. 

One day I was cleaning out and organizing a part of my house (we call it the Harry Potter closet since it's under our stairs) where the bulk of our food storage is located. On the shelf were several canisters of oatmeal that I'd purchased at a ridiculously low price. As I was moving them around, I noticed the dates on the bottom of them: they should have been used over a year ago and were well past the date printed. I didn't want to throw them out but they were old. So, on a whim, I called the customer service number printed on the label. The nice lady from customer service told me that date was more of a guideline and that the oats I had were perfectly fine. I asked, "What if they don't get used for another six months or so?" Her answer: "Still fine." I took her word for it and we used them without a problem. I think we may have polished off the last of the "expired"-in-2009 oats early last year.  

I became more open-minded about eating shelf-stable stuff past the sell-by dates, but until quite recently I was still wary of eating anything perishable (read: dairy) past the printed dates on the labels. Well, that was until I fed my little guy some yogurt that had lapsed the printed date by a week. I remember I finished feeding him the peach yogurt (which he happily gobbled up) and when I went to throw it out, I noticed the date. What had I done?!? I sniffed was left in the container. It smelled totally fine. So, of course, I did a quick internet search and found out, to my surprise, that yogurt is fine 7-10 days after the sell by date, just as long as your fridge is at the proper temperature. Oh, the yogurt I'd wasted over the years! 

Sell-by, use-by, and best-by dates aren't expiration dates -- I always kind of thought they were all the same thing. The only foods that carry expiration dates (as required by law) is infant formula and baby food. Sell-by dates are guidelines for food that is perishable; the dates give stores a good idea of how long they should keep items on shelves and in display cases. You should buy products at the store before their sell-by date, but you can store them for a little while past that date. Use-by or best-by dates are usually on shelf-stable foods and all those dates indicate is when the foods will be at their best taste and quality -- food safety isn't the concern with those dates (except if a can is bulging -- a sign of botulism -- or shows signs of spoilage). Food may not taste as good as if you'd adhered to the best-by date (the color and texture may change, too), but you'll be fine eating it.

A recent example: as I mentioned in my last post, I've been going sort of paleo for the last few weeks. I didn't realize how much of our milk is consumed by me. This has led to the gallons of milk in the fridge lasting longer. So when this whole gallon of organic milk (which is kinda spendy) passed the sell-by date, I had no qualms pouring it over my kindergartener's cereal this morning or filling my toddler's cup with it. Milk is fine, as I've since learned, for about a week after the sell-by date. Just be sure to give it a sniff now and then.

The takeaway from this post: the sell-by dates and best-by dates on food are more like guidelines than actual rules. A more in-depth overview of what the sell by, best by, and expiration dates really mean can be found here at the site You can also find a helpful tool there -- simply enter the food in question in their search engine and it will bring up the shelf-life for you. Their database covers thousands of different foods. 

As I type this post, I can't help but think of a sad/super gross episode from show Hoarders where a woman hoarded food. Most of what the woman had in her home was spoiled beyond belief. I remember the woman saying something about containers of sour cream that were months past their sell-by dates: "What's going to happen? It's going to get more sour?" I bring this woman up because common sense plays a huge part in the topic of wasting food. You can ignore the dates if you want, but don't ignore what your eyes see or what your nose smells. Your senses are one of the best ways to assure freshness or quality, even better than a printed date on a label. 

For a quick chart with shelf-life dates of general food groups, check out this link For a little more reading on this topic of labels and "expired" food (it's actually pretty interesting, I think) you can read here about how sell-by guidelines are decided and about tests run on a 40-year-old can of sweet corn (spoiler: it was still safe!).


Jamie @ Prepared to Eat said...

I have been making it a strong point to not waste food in my house lately, too. Thanks for this post, it's very educational. And I recently found StillTasty, what a great resource!

Elizabeth Jane said...

Even stinky milk makes good bread and biscuits!

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

I mostly use the nose rule. A friend who worked in this industry once told me how arbitrary some of the dates stamped on shelf-stable food are. But it IS rather gross to accidentally eat or drink spoiled milk.

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