You go to great lengths to get a good value for the food dollars you spend: you use coupons, purchase store brands, apply the buy on sale not when you need it and the buy on sale and stock up strategies to lower your grocery bill. Yet, misconceptions about food product dating may be causing you to throw out good food needlessly, costing you hundreds of dollars annually, dollars you can’t afford to lose.
You are not alone; Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food per year according to Jonathan Bloom author of American Wasteland. That is edible food that goes uneaten. Bloom estimates that food waste costs an average family of four from $1,365 to $2,275 annually. A 2013 study conducted jointly by Harvard Law School and the National Resources Defense Council (NDRC) determined that widespread misconceptions surrounding food product dating contribute to food waste and that a clear understanding of the meaning of food product dating could significantly reduce food waste and save consumers money.
Food product dating is not about food safety
The primary misconception about food product dating is that it is related to food safety. People think that food is not safe to eat after the date on the package. The truth is, the dates that appear on food packaging have nothing to do with food safety. Food product dating is meant to convey information related to the freshness and quality of the food. In an effort to protect the reputation of their product brands, food processors date food products to encourage consumption at peak freshness and quality. The food is still good to eat significantly past the date on the package. In fact, it will become unpalatable due to spoilage long before it is unsafe to consume.
Definitions of food product dating terms
General explanations of the meaning of common food product dating designations, according to the authors of the joint study conducted by Harvard Law School and the NDRC, follow. Notice that they have nothing to do with food safety.
- “Production” or “Pack” date: The date the product was manufactured or placed in final packaging.
- “Sell by” date: This date is used by retailers for stock control. It is the last day that the product can be sold and retain a reasonable amount of shelf life at peak quality for the consumer after the purchase.
- “Best if used by” date: The estimated date at which the product will no longer be at peak quality.
- “Use by” date: The last date recommended for the consumption of the product at peak quality.
- “Freeze by” date: The last date the product can be frozen to maintain peak quality.
- “Enjoy by” date: This designation has not been clearly defined.
Food storage in the home determines useful shelf life
How a food product is stored in the home is a more important determinant of useful shelf life than the date on the product. Minimize the time perishable food is exposed to temperatures in the danger zone (40 degrees to 120 degrees Fahrenheit), and avoid the exposure of non-perishable foods to air, moisture, heat, and light to extend their useful shelf life. Freeze food products to maintain their freshness.
How we use food product dating
Rosa and I use food product dating to determine the relative freshness of the food products we buy at the store and for the purpose of rotating food inventory in our pantry. Food dating is a helpful reminder to us to use up a product before it goes bad, but it is not an indicator of when the food is no longer palatable. We regularly use food products long past the package date as long as our senses tell us they are still edible. In fact, we will purchase non-perishable food (snack crackers, pretzels, cookies, and such) that are past the date on the packaging if the price is right. We have found that freezing these products for 24 hours extends their shelf life and gives us ample opportunity to consume them before they become unpalatable.
Stop throwing money away!
Don’t discard food products solely because they have exceeded product dating. Nothing is wrong with them except that they may not be at peak quality. Use your senses to determine when it is time to throw out the product. Does it smell bad? Does it look old or spoiled? Does it taste bad? Let your senses be your guide and save money.
K. C. Knouse is the author of True Prosperity: Your Guide to a Cash-Based Lifestyle, Double-Dome Publications, 224 pages