Let’s talk about food waste. When was the last time you tossed that unopened yogurt because it was a few days past the sell by date? Or, how about that box of cereal that went straight to the bin because the “best by” date was a couple of months ago? If you’ve done either, you’re not alone.
The cost of food waste is adding up up! Each year, the United States throws away $162 billion worth of food, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And while you definitely should toss out that unidentifiable leftover shoved in the back of your refrigerator, much of the food we throw out is still safe to eat.
Studies show that we often toss food because we don’t understand what those best by, sell by and other date labels mean. In fact, up to 90 percent of Americans throw away food too early because they’ve misinterpreted those dates, according to the defense council.
And when we throw out food that’s still good to eat, it’s not just food waste and the resources it took to grow or make it that we experience. We’re also wasting a lot of money. The average family of four tosses out about $1,500 worth of food each year, according to the council.
Sell by vs best by
So, what do those date labels mean? It depends and, for the most part, those dates aren’t guided by any federal law. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, only infant formula is required by federal law to list product dates.
For the most part, manufacturers come up with those best by or sell by dates that you see stamped on food packages in your cupboard or refrigerator. These are “quality dates,” notes the federal agency, not “safety dates.” Indeed, as the FDA says, it’s important to note that when food is stored properly, it should be safe to eat after its use by or best by date.
But the FDA does provide some guidance on what those dates mean. According to the FDA’s website,
And, about two years ago, a new product date label started popping up more often on food packages -- “best if used by.” In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended manufacturers start using the phrase because it is more “easily understood by consumers as an indicator of quality, rather than safety,” according to an agriculture department press release.
So, if you can’t rely on the use by or best by dates to determine if something is safe to eat, what’s a consumer to do?
Check the FoodKeeper App, which was created by the U.S. agriculture department with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute. The site offers a comprehensive list of foods -- from fresh meats and produce to canned and boxed goods -- and how soon they need to be eaten.
After checking the free app, you might be surprised to learn how long items can last if they are stored properly or frozen -- and how much good food waste (and money lost) you’ve experienced over the years simply because you thought it had gone bad based on that “best by” date.
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