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Understanding Expiration Dates

Food waste is an enormous problem in our country. On a yearly basis, Americans waste 165 billion dollars’ worth of edible food. To be clear, this is wasted food that is perfectly safe to eat. Another way to look at it is that half of the food produced for consumption in the United States is ultimately thrown away.

There’s a long list of causes for this problem, but one that can be addressed directly by us, the consumers, is our understanding of expiration dates on food packaging.

Too often, we simply see a listed date on a packaged food item, check the calendar to see that date has passed, and discard the food without considering any more information.

The first piece of information to be aware of is that the dates placed on food items are set by the food manufacturers, not the FDA. This is the first clue that they may not be a wholly reliable indicator of food safety, and may serve to help drive the purchase of new products.

You should also be aware that these dates can mean a few different things.

A sell-by date is really only relevant for retailers. It’s a guide for when they should have the food off of their shelves, not a guide for when it should be eaten by.

A best-by or best-if-used-by date is meant to be an indicator of food quality, not food safety. After that date, you may not be getting the best possible version of the food product but it is likely safe to eat for a period of time.

An expiration date is supposed to indicate when food should be eaten by, but independent research has shown that food is often safe to eat for a long period of time after these printed dates as well. Note this date, but know that it can be misleading.

So what should we do if our food has an expired date on its label? You certainly shouldn’t eat anything that has an off-putting smell, appearance, presence of mold, or has become slimy in texture. But if it’s not too long after the expiration date and the food looks fine, smells fine, and tastes fine, there’s a very low chance it will cause any food-borne illness. Use your senses, including your common sense, to decide if your food is still safe to eat before tossing it in the trash.

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