Table Scraps

Table Scraps: How to Get Over the Mental Block of Misleading Expiration Dates

Lauren Cusimano
What does this shit even mean?
Welcome to Table Scraps, an intermittent series on the growing problem of food waste and what some eateries, officials, farms, institutes, and everyday people are doing right. This isn’t a guilt trip, just a way to unpack initiatives attempting to reduce kitchen waste and food loss, as more than 40 percent of all food is wasted in the U.S. We’ll explore backyard composting to city programs, restaurant tips to technology, and anything related to this global issue. Heat up those leftovers and settle in.

Maybe you are, or were once, like I am, or once was.

You’re about to go grocery shopping, or you’re deep in house-cleaning mode, so you throw open the refrigerator door and do the lean in or full squat. You’re ready to liquidate everything inside. You snatch up that plastic bottle of Zesty Italian and twist it around to check the date. It “expired” last month.

So it’s out. In the trash (or maybe you at least recycled the bottle). There’s zero harm in this. You’re being responsible, keeping your home free of clutter, not poisoning yourself or your family.

In some cases, fine, chuck the salad dressing. But in many, many instances like this, just try to relax. That’s because, as many of us are starting to hear, the “expiration” date is not a thing. Or at least, not the thing you think.

Growing Up With the Sell-By Dates

Let me be clear: I am not against fresh food. It’s great. I, too, get freaked out by slimy, ignored veggies and ground beef that might have long lost its beautiful pink hue. But I am against being inadvertently wasteful — especially over something as misleading as an “Enjoy-by” date.

For many of us, the expiration date is ingrained. I lived by it for years, even had a roommate not speak to me for throwing out her “expired” sour cream. My born date? 1986. I grew up with that stupid Budweiser beer date commercial. And whenever I made cereal with after-the-day milk, I thought about the old Jerry Seinfeld bit till the end of the bowl.

So many of us don’t realize the origin of these labels. We might think some high-up government agency came up with them. We must abide by them, for our own good. But as you might soon realize, expiration dates are about as serious as the “do not remove” mattress tag.

What's the Deal With Regulation?

According to a Natural Resources Defense Council report, “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill,” expiration dates are considered confusing. “’Use-by’” and “’best-by’” dates, commonly found on both perishable and nonperishable products, are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality,” it reads. “They do not indicate food safety, as is commonly believed, nor are they regulated.”

Personal note: This report is magic.

The United State Department of Agriculture confirms. “Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law,” it states on the USDA website. There’s a whole page (and probably more) dedicated to food product dating. Heads up: You could easily spend hours on this page.

In short, they’re not regulated. Willy-nilly comes to mind, even though I’m probably just annoyed. So where did these dates come from?

So where or when does the government actually step in? Well in Arizona, it’s pretty limited. According to another NRDC report, the only date label you’ll find regulated by the state of Arizona will be on eggs. And even their shelf life was extended in 2018.

Based on my experience, expiration dates have us so hopped up on freshness and worried about spending half the night over a toilet that we’ll toss a browned banana, chuck our roommate’s sour cream without even asking, or throw out a bushel of parsley before it ever had the chance to garnish — to shine — even if it’s all still perfectly edible, and safe.

And this just leads to food waste.

click to enlarge This ASU Associate Professor of Nutrition and Assistant Dean of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives says food waste affects our environment, wallets, and health. - COURTESY OF CHRISTOPHER WHARTON
This ASU Associate Professor of Nutrition and Assistant Dean of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives says food waste affects our environment, wallets, and health.
Courtesy of Christopher Wharton
Connection to Food Waste

Twist — “expiration dates” don’t really exist.

Arizona State University Associate Professor of Nutrition and Assistant Dean of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives Christopher Wharton can explain.

“It’s a misnomer in the first place. It’s rare to actually see ‘expires by.’ You usually see sell, use, or best by,” he says, “and none of them are actually expiration dates.” Wharton confirms there's no federal guidance from the USDA or FDA on these dates labeled on food packing except for baby formula. So why are they even there?

We’ll start with “sell by.”

Because of our long food supply chains, “sell-by” dates are a communication from the producer to the grocery store. It basically expresses when to turn over the product on the shelf. “So sell dates aren’t bogus,” Wharton says, a word I really wanted to use. “They are meant to be a communicator, more to the grocer, say.”

But it’s confusing to the consumer, as Wharton says over 40 percent of consumers misunderstand the meaning of date labels — which is confirmed by the "Wasted" NRDC report.

“But that’s not the case,” Wharton says. “There’s probably a third of the food’s life or more still available after the ‘sell by’ date.” A third! And yeah, none of the dates have anything to do with food safety.

Next, “best by” and “use by.”

“Best-by and use-by dates are really more about quality,” Wharton says. “That's a communication from the producer to the consumer,” i.e., us. “Beyond which, it’s still perfectly safe for some period of time, maybe for a long period of time.”

So, these dates aren’t quite arbitrary, “perhaps just accidentally misleading,” he says. “People assume these mean it's time to throw it out.”

Of course that’s not to say all food lasts forever.

Wharton says with some foods, as quality degrades, food safety concerns can go up, especially fresh products, like milk, eggs, and meats. “It makes sense that after some certain date, you should start worrying about food-borne illness,” he says. “That’s when it’s time to employ your senses,” i.e., a sniff test.

Wharton has a few thoughts on this topic. And they’re three-pronged.

click to enlarge It's just a communication, not an expiration. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
It's just a communication, not an expiration.
Lauren Cusimano
1. Environmental Issues

The greatest amount of food waste in the U.S. is from households.

“Something like 40 percent of all food is wasted in the U.S.,” he says from his office at ASU’s downtown campus. That’s from the entire supply chain, from production all the way to consumption. “The largest proportion of that is happening at the household level. It’s something like 45 million tons of food is wasted at the household level.”

As we’ve mentioned before, food stuff rotting in a landfill produces methane emissions. “Rotting food is probably the third largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the U.S.” Wharton says.

He explains how climate change is an existential threat to humanity that may be happening in decades’ time, but people can shut down when faced with it because they can’t grapple with that large a problem. But a major component is embedded in our consumer culture and how we handle food.

“Because food is so cheap in the U.S., we’ve literally devalued it, and in our minds devalued it,” he says, meaning it’s easy to throw out and never think about again. “But it is this huge contributor to climate change and as such we have incredible agency to impact climate change ourselves as consumers, not just by voting with your dollar, but by changes you can make in your home.”

Aside from an environmental impact, Wharton can break down two other detriments of food waste in the household.

2. Financial Impact

Wharton says again, for many of us, not all of us, food is devalued because it’s so inexpensive. And again, it’s an easy thing to ignore. “We don’t think about it because when we waste food, it’s on the level of a dollar or two worth of greens or carrots or bread,” he says, “but in aggregate, over a year, it's a considerable impact.”

Can we put that in real terms? Yes.

“Up to $1,500 is wasted per household per year,” he says, “and that’s like an entire paycheck or more.” No comment.

3. Health Effects

Of the foods we waste, the greatest percentage loss is in fruits and vegetables, “so it's this lost opportunity to eat healthy,” Wharton says. That’s nutrition not going into yourself, your family, your kids.

And how we eat often has some sort of feedback mechanism, eventually. “So 20 years down the road your doctor may say, ‘You’re now dealing with high blood pressure; let’s talk about your diet,” he says. “Nobody says, ‘You’ve been throwing out food for years; let’s talk about your food waste.’”

That because tossed food just disappears from sight. “But the problems that causes are global in nature," Wharton says. “That’s why we need to try and employ our values from the ground up to engage with that problem and make changes about it.”

click to enlarge One University of Phoenix Stadium a day. - JIM LOUVAU
One University of Phoenix Stadium a day.
Jim Louvau

So, in Conclusion

Wharton says he’d bet close to a third to a half of food and kitchen waste coming from the household level is because of “expiration” dates. “It’s probably not the majority,” he says. The" Wasted" NRDC report states about 20 percent of household food waste is linked to date labeling confusion.

To summarize, let’s have some fun with stats.

Wharton says if we were to scrape up all the food that’s wasted in one day in the U.S., it would fill a football stadium. Yes, that’s one State Farm Stadium per day. In aggregate, the retail value is $165 billion. In calories, a 150 trillion calories is thrown out per year.

“It happens for all sorts of reasons,” Wharton says, “but at the household level, it’s usually things that can be mitigated with some simple strategies.”

Simple things like ignoring bogus (I finally got to say it) labeling dates.