Are you tossing too early? “Sell By”, “Use By”, “Expires On” and “Best Before” are examples of the more than ten types of terms placed on our foods. According to research by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, these phrases confuse us into thinking that we need to discard the food by the date on the label. Whereas the “Sell By” date is geared towards the grocery manager who uses it to inventory and rotate stock on the shelves, and the “Expires On” applies to food safety, most of the other dates reflect the point at which quality, nutrition and functionality of the food are no longer maintained. In other words, it’s a little past prime but still safe so don’t toss that food!
What’s the Big Deal?
An estimated 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten or 160 billion pounds of food annually. Statistically eight percent of this is due to label confusion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates that the average family wastes $1,500 in food each year. Collectively, this amounts to upwards of $162 billion dollars to grow, process and transport food that is never eaten. Fresh water, land, energy, oil, labor and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from food decay are all negative outcomes from our lack of understanding on what these dates mean. It’s also a missed opportunity to feed the millions of households in the United States who are struggling to access and afford food for their family.
The Past, Present and Future of Dating
In the early 1900’s we purchased much of our foods directly from the farmer with first hand knowledge of its freshness and no date was required. In the mid 1900’s we began to rely more on manufactured products, reducing our ability to know how fresh the product was. By the 1970’s we began demanding date information. At least ten federal bills were introduced in attempt to regulate the industry but none were passed. As a result, today we have a variety of state and local laws along with voluntary self-regulation by industry and trade associations. It’s uncoordinated, confusing and wasteful.
Recently, two major trade associations for retailers and manufacturing, The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) are leading an initiative to adopt two common phrases by the summer of 2018. Their goal is to reduce label confusion and associated waste by standardizing labels.
Phrase one, “Best If Used By” will label products in reference to quality. This means that while the product might not taste, maintain it’s nutritional quality or function as well beyond the specified date, it is still safe to consume.
Phrase two, “Use By” will label for products that are highly perishable and may post a health hazard if kept too long.
What Can You Do?
1. Make a weekly menu plan and stick to it. When we mindlessly roam through the grocery store we oftentimes buy more than we can eat. This is particularly important when it comes to perishables like fresh produce and dairy products.
2. Buy a mixture of fresh, frozen and canned produce if you only shop infrequently. This way you can successfully get your recommended five-a-day by enjoying a wider variety of fruits and vegetables in the absence of waste. Do make sure your canned products are water or juice packed with no added salt.
3. Rotate your food and beverages first in, first out. This is what they do in the grocery stores to reduce waste and it’s the same thing you should do at home.
4. Store foods safely. This includes ensuring your refrigerator is set at <41° Fahrenheit, storing all appropriate items in airtight containers to preserve freshness and freezing them before they exceed the date on the package.
5. Donate to the food banks or shelters. Go through your cupboards a couple of time each year and donate rather than pitch the items you thought, but in reality you will never eat.
Creating safer food and reducing needless waste becomes easier with standardized date marking, a good weekly food plan and the knowledge that in most instances the date doesn’t mean discard to landfill.
Categories: Nutrition & Wellness