Food expiration dates don’t have much science behind them

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A food safety researcher explains another way to know what’s too old to eat

EXCERPTS: . . . Avoiding unseen food hazards is the reason people often check the dates on food packaging. And printed with the month and year is often one of a dizzying array of phrases: “best by,” “use by,” “best if used before,” “best if used by,” “guaranteed fresh until,” “freeze by” and even a “born on” label applied to some beer.

People think of them as expiration dates, or the date at which a food should go in the trash. But the dates have little to do with when food expires, or becomes less safe to eat. I am a microbiologist and public health researcher, and I have used molecular epidemiology to study the spread of bacteria in food. A more science-based product dating system could make it easier for people to differentiate foods they can safely eat from those that could be hazardous.

[...] The USDA Economic Research Center reports that nearly 31% of all available food is never consumed. Historically high food prices make the problem of waste seem all the more alarming.

The current food labeling system may be to blame for much of the waste. The FDA reports consumer confusion around product dating labels is likely responsible for around 20% of the food wasted in the home, costing an estimated US$161 billion per year.

It’s logical to believe that date labels are there for safety reasons, since the federal government enforces rules for including nutrition and ingredient information on food labels. Passed in 1938 and continuously modified since, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act requires food labels to inform consumers of nutrition and ingredients in packaged foods, including the amount of salt, sugar and fat it contains.

The dates on those food packages, however, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Rather, they come from food producers. And they may not be based on food safety science.

For example, a food producer may survey consumers in a focus group to pick a “use by” date that is six months after the product was produced because 60% of the focus group no longer liked the taste. Smaller manufacturers of a similar food might play copycat and put the same date on their product. [...] Infant formula is the only food product with a “use by” date that is both government regulated and scientifically determined... (MORE - missing details)

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