There are some sure-fire ways to determine when food in the fridge or the pantry has reached its max shelf life. Discoloration or signs of mold can be a clear sign, for example. When in doubt, the old-fashioned smell test has been tried and true.
However, the method most turn to is simply to check the date printed on packaging.
But, with confusion around word choices and issues surrounding food waste and food insecurity, it could be time to rethink that approach.
Major grocery stores throughout the U.K. announced plans underway to scrap the expiration dates from certain perishable goods altogether in an effort to reduce waste. Consumers are encouraged to be more intentional with their shopping and to rely on their better judgment before assuming certain foods are ready to be thrown out.
According to Bloomberg, “Asda, Co-Op, Morrisons, Waitrose, Tesco Plc and Marks & Spencer Group Plc have all announced a total or partial scrapping of their traditional ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates on certain products, in some cases shifting to scannable codes that store staff can monitor to cull expired items.”
ASSESSING THE ISSUE IN THE U.S.
Wasteful food habits and a lack of clarity on expiration dates aren’t limited to Europe; it’s a concern around the world. British households waste approximately a third of all purchased food items, culminating in an estimated 6.7 million tonnes of food each year, according to Fast Company.
The U.S. is in a similar position.
The U.S. wastes an estimated $161 billion worth of food each year. Uncertainty around expiration dates leads to about 20% of food waste in the home, according to a 2019 report from the Food and Drug Administration.
In response to this, the FDA also put out a letter that same year urging food companies to implement a more standard “best if used by” label for items that are safe to consume even after they lose their freshness, but is it the labeling that causes the problem altogether?
Many consumers are quick to toss out anything that has exceeded the date provided out of an abundance of caution. Whether it be “best by,” “use by,” “sell by” or any other variation, food expiration dates are commonly viewed as a precise point-of-no-return.
The simple truth is that many of the dates printed on food packaging are not the point at which the food becomes unsafe, but rather, when the freshness and quality of the product can no longer be guaranteed.
Matthew Taylor is a senior manager of consulting for the National Sanitation Foundation’s global food division, and he laid out some of the key differences that are lost on some consumers.
“A ‘use by’ date is about food safety and is the most important date to stick by – this applies to foods such as meat products and ready-to-eat salads. ‘Best before’ dates are about quality and not safety, and it’s these dates that most retailers are looking to (or already) remove on items such as loose fruit and vegetables,” Taylor told The Food Institute.
The confusion behind the wording of expiration dates leads to much of the unnecessary waste, and that’s why proponents of eliminating expiration dates see it as a boon to consumers rather than a burden.
If omitting expiration dates can lead to less food waste, it can also help consumers with rising prices on the items being tossed prematurely. The FDA says about a third of the food in the U.S. goes to waste. While it might feel better erring on the side of caution and removing questionable products from the fridge, this also contributes to wasteful spending.
U.S. TO FOLLOW SUIT?
Dana Gunders is the executive director at ReFED, a nonprofit focused on combating food waste, and sees eliminating expiration dates as a step in the right direction for the U.K. However, she acknowledges there could be some pushback to such a move in the U.S.
“Being more litigious and liability-focused here, I don’t know how soon all of this will hit the U.S. But certainly, having the U.K. pave the way can only help,” Gunders said.
America’s eating habits are also something to consider when looking at these kinds of policies. Dependence on restaurants, food delivery systems, and other quick and easy solutions to food have only increased in recent years.
Experts like Stacy Savage, founder and CEO of Zero Waste Strategies, agree that consumers in the U.S. will need guidance navigating such a change.
“This national move should be prefaced with robust public education campaigns with consistent messaging to help shoppers understand the basic tenets of safe grocery selection on perishable items,” Savage said.