Are Food Expiration Dates Bunk?

Are Food Expiration Dates Bunk?

The fact that food expiration dates are essentially unregulated and mean nothing is bad enough, but the waste they cause is unthinkable—and preventable. Read on for why, along with a goop guide to everyday food preservation:

  • 1. They’re not required by law
    The FDA only requires expiration dates for infant formula, and while some state laws vary on date labeling for dairy and meat, most of the dates we see on food at the grocery store are determined and placed by the manufacturer.

  • 2. SELL BY has nothing to do with food safety
    In fact, SELL BY isn’t even information relevant to consumers (some argue that this information should be coded for internal use at grocery stores as to not confuse consumers). SELL BY is the manufacturer telling the stockist when they should pull the product based on its peak quality.

  • 3. Meanwhile, BEST BY or USE BY don’t mean anything either
    BEST BY and USE BY dates, again, only indicate when the product is at its peak in flavor, texture, and appearance. There is no reliable scientific way to determine when a given product will deteriorate, as there are many variables involved, and methods of transportation and storage affect spoilage: For example, how long your milk sat in your hot car on your drive home, or whether or not your yogurt was stored on the top shelf (the warmest one) of your fridge.

  • 4. Expiration dates encourage you to buy more
    Manufacturers have a real financial incentive to keep date ranges tight—so consumers enjoy their product at its peak, and then either enjoy and buy again (fair enough), or needlessly buy more based on needing a newer date range (pretty lame).

  • 5. The amount of waste dates cause is immoral
    We waste about a third of the food we produce in the US—about 20 percent of that waste is caused by confusion over date labeling. Wasted food is problematic for a number of reasons: Besides the fact that we are tossing money, over 15 million American households are food insecure. It’s also a total drain on labor and environmental resources. Fortunately, there are legislative efforts afoot, as Rep. Pingree (D, ME) plans to reintroduce the Food and Date Labeling Act into congress this August.

The goop Eat-It-Or-Toss-It Kitchen Guide

How do you know if your food is safe to eat? Here, tips by food category:


Are Food Expiration Dates Bunk?

Eggs are often safe to eat well beyond the date, as long as they are stored in their original carton in the cooler part of your fridge. (Think middle or bottom shelf, not door. Door=warm.)

To tell if an egg is fresh, place it in a bowl of water. If it sinks and lies flat, it’s good to go; if it floats, it’s past its prime. (Since eggshells are porous, the longer it’s been around, the more air is absorbed through the shell, causing it to float.)


Are Food Expiration Dates Bunk?

A lot of people get scared when meat is off color, but that’s not necessarily dangerous on its own. Sometimes meat—red meat in particular—will turn a little gray after exposure to the air. (There is less wiggle room with fish and poultry.) Your best bet with meat is to follow the nose-knows rule: If it smells off, it probably is. Another thing to look out for is any sort of slimy or tacky film on the surface—that’s a definite no.


Are Food Expiration Dates Bunk?

There’s really no arguing with the off-putting smell of sour milk. However, that sour milk isn’t necessarily dangerous—it can substitute for buttermilk, yogurt, or sour cream in pancakes, biscuits, quick breads, and cakes.


Are Food Expiration Dates Bunk?

Crackers, chips, pretzels, etc.: None of these things become unsafe to eat, they just get stale. We find you can stretch the life by transferring them into airtight jars, or repurpose them by toasting them in the oven then either blitzing them up into homemade “breadcrumbs” or mixing them into chocolate bark.


Are Food Expiration Dates Bunk?

Mold is a pretty good indicator that you should toss your produce, unless you can significantly cut around it. Green potatoes are poisonous.

If your veggies are just a little limp, here a few solutions: Trim the stems on greens like kale and chard and stick them in a vase of ice water like a bouquet—they’ll bounce right back. Limp carrots, celery, fennel, and onion scraps can all be tossed into a container in your freezer for making stock later.

If you’ve got stuff that’s about to go, consider making quick pickles or a fruit compote. Either will keep in your fridge for up to two months, taste delicious, and save the day.

Required Reading on Reducing Food Waste