"Dating Game" Study: Use-By Dates on Products Linked to Food Waste

Source: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In the year’s best news for cash-strapped postgrads yet, a new study clarifies that expiration dates stamped on products indicate peak quality — not the day that the food will spoil. The unfortunate result? Some major food waste. 

The Harvard study released this week found that ninety percent of consumers throw out food on the sell-by date, mostly because they’re unaware the stamp has nothing to do with food safety. In fact, if the average American tossed food when it actually went bad, each household could save $275-455 each year.

Hooray! (I cry as I eat another blueberry from a container marked September 18.)

“The dates are undefined in law and have nothing to do with safety,” said Emily Broad Leib, lead author of the “Dating Game” study (clever) and director of Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. “They are just a manufacturer suggestion of peak quality.”

Even infant formula’s use-by date (the only one that has federal regulation, by the way) is only standardized because that’s when its nutrients decline — not because the product actually goes bad.

So the food’s going to be fine, it’s just not going to be at its optimum taste. But who are we, royalty? And manufacturers do a lot of lab and taste tests to make sure the date on the label is indeed the tastiest (woe betide the day-five yogurt taster).

Unfortunately, our drone-like adherence to the magic numbers accounts for 160 tons of food waste each year, as well as 25 percent of our water consumption (used to produce the masses of to-be-wasted food). 

So what are the guidelines for knowing when food really spoils? We need to think about the amount of time food spends in the “danger zone:” 40-120 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s a really long time, maybe second thoughts should happen.

Hopefully, Leib says, the results will lead to a push for industry standardization and regulation, as well as better dating practices that aim more on the side of “that’s gone off” than prime taste buds.

So go on, give that unopened milk a sniff. And no more excuses for tossing the soymilk that “expired” yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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