Do you freeze foods well before the expiration date? Check the milk to make sure it will last the week? Throw out items the moment they pass over the stamped deadline? If so, you may be doing so unnecessarily and even contributing to the vast food waste problem across the world.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says approximately one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year, which amounts to 1.3 billion tons, gets lost or wasted. The organization says consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.
It is important to note that the dates on various food and beverage items may mean different things, and not all of them are strict ‘expiration dates’ requiring foods to be discarded. The United States Department of Agriculture states that food expiration dates are protecting food quality, not food safety. In fact, U.S. regulations do not require that expiration dates be put on meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, cans, and boxed foods. Baby formula is the only product that requires an expiration date on its packaging.
Rather, dates featured on foods are typically ‘sell-by’ and ‘use-by’ dates. The sell-by date refers to how long the store has to display the product. It is important to note that this date is essentially a guide for the retailer, so the store knows when to pull the item off the shelf. Furthermore, pulling the food is not mandatory in all states.
The use-by date or best-by date is an arbitrary date by which the manufacturer thinks the product will start to fall below its peak quality, states Business Insider. Prior to the use-by date, items will have the most flavor and texture or quality. This does not mean that the item becomes any less safe after the date.
The ‘pack’ or ‘born on’ date refers to when the product was packaged. It may be used for beer, which can go bad from sunlight after just a few months, or other perishable foods.
A report from the Natural Resource Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic says more than 90 percent of Americans throw out food prematurely, and 40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes uneaten every year because of food dating.
So how does one avoid getting sick but conserve food resources? By following these guidelines.
Eggs can be consumed three to five weeks after purchase. Many nonperishable boxed or canned foods can still be enjoyed well beyond the stamped date with no noticeable changes in quality.
Soft cheeses and dairy products generally can last one week past the sell-by date and still be palatable. Poultry or seafood should be frozen or cooked within a day or two of its sell-by stamp. Ground meats should be used within two days of purchase because bacteria on the surface of the meat can be mixed throughout the meat during grinding.
Highly acidic canned foods will last a little more than a year, while low-acid foods are usually good for up to five years, say the nutrition experts at Texas A&M University.
Any foods that smell bad, have visible mold growth or seem to have a strange texture should be avoided, even if the date suggests they are fine. Use common sense when determining which foods are safe to eat.