The lie of “expired” food and the disastrous truth of America’s food waste problem

Maybe you know the routine. Every so often, I go through my refrigerator, check labels on the items, and throw out anything that’s a month, or a week, or maybe a few days past the date on the label. I might stop to sniff, but for my whole adult life, I’ve figured that the problem was obvious — my jam or almond milk or package of shredded Italian cheese blend had “expired” — and the fix was simple: Into the garbage it goes.

This habit is so ingrained that when I think about eating food that’s gone past its date, I get a little queasy. I’ve only had food poisoning once or twice in my life, always from restaurants, but the idea is still there in my head: past the date, food will make me sick. You’ll probably never catch me dumpster-diving.

I know, on some intellectual level, that throwing away food is probably wrong. The statistics are damning. Forty percent of food produced in America heads to the landfill or is otherwise wasted. That adds up. Every year, the average American family throws out somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275, according to a landmark 2013 study co-authored by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s a huge economic loss for food growers and retailers, who often have to ditch weirdly shaped produce or overstocked food that didn’t sell.

Environmentally it’s bad, too. The study found that 25 percent of fresh water in the US goes toward producing food that goes uneaten, and 21 percent of input to our landfills is food, which represents a per-capita increase of 50 percent since 1974. Right now, landfills are piled high with wasted food, most of which was perfectly fine to eat — and some of which still is.

On top of this, I know that in the same country that throws away so much food, about 42 million people could be living with food insecurity and hunger. Yet state-level regulations often make it difficult to donate past-date food to food banks and other services.

America has a food waste problem. But I’ve rarely been clear on how that translates to how I actually treat the food in my refrigerator. Because what can you do, right? When the date says it’s done, it’s done, right?

Apparently, very wrong. Researchers have found that “expiration” dates — which rarely correspond to food actually expiring or spoiling — are mostly well-intentioned, but haphazard and confusing. Put another way, they’re not expiration dates at all. And the broader public’s misunderstanding about them is a major contributor in every single one of the factors I named above: wasted food, wasted revenue, wasted household income, and food insecurity.

If you’ve been throwing out food based on the freshness label, though, you’re not alone. It’s a widespread practice. Chef, journalist, and cookbook writer Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, explains: “In the absence of culinary information, people assume that any information they’ve been given must be the most important information.” A big part of the problem is that most of us don’t really believe we’re capable of determining if a food is good for us.

“It’s really hard to imagine you’re supposed to trust your own nose and mouth,” Adler said. “Add that to convenience culture and rapacious late-stage capitalism and, well, we’re fucked.”

The good news is that the problem wouldn’t be all that hard to fix, in the abstract. The bad part is that solving the broader system around it takes time, education, and a shift in our consumption habits. But the incentives for virtually everyone involved are high — and a good place to start is by figuring out what those labels actually mean and how to interact with them.

Everything you assume about date labels is probably wrong

There are two vital facts to know about date labels on foods in the US: They’re not standardized, and they have almost nothing to do with food safety. Date labels first started appearing in the decades following World War II, as American consumers increasingly moved away from shopping at small grocery stores and farms and toward supermarkets, with their rows of packaged and curated options. At first, manufacturers printed a date code on cans and packages for the benefit of the grocer, so they’d have a guideline for when to rotate their stock. The label was not designed for consumers. But since shoppers wanted to buy the freshest food on the shelf, savvy folks started publishing booklets that gave a guide for deciphering the codes. Eventually, producers — seeing that shoppers actually wanted to know what those secret dates were — started including more clearly readable dates on the packages, with month, day, and year. They saw it as a marketing boon; it was a way to attract consumers and signify that your food was fresh and flavorful. Consumers loved it, and the so-called “open date” labels became common. But there was little consistency about them. And while the federal government made some attempts beginning in the 1970s to enact legislation that would standardize what those labels mean across the country, they failed. (The exception is infant formula, for which there are strict federal guidelines.) Instead, the burden fell on state (and sometimes local) legislatures, which passed laws that varied wildly, often relying on voluntary industry standards. One state might never require labels; another may mandate that the freshness label on milk have a date of 21 days after bottling; a third may set the same date at 14 days. (In my home state of New York, there are laws about labels, but the standards don’t mention dates at all — though certainly many manufacturers still put date labels on their products, and various municipalities at times set their own guidelines.) State-to-state discrepancies can be costly for manufacturers, who had to come up with ways to produce multiple labels for multiple regions. But it’s also baffling to consumers. The labels are inconsistent, too. What the label actually indicates varies from producer to producer. So you might have a “best by” label on one product, a “sell by” label on another, and a “best if used before” label on a third. Those have different meanings, but the average consumer may not immediately realize that, or even notice there’s a difference.

Furthermore, those dates might not even be consistent across brands of the same food product — peanut butter, say, or strawberry jam. That’s partly because they’re not really meant to indicate when a food is safest. Most packaged foods are perfectly fine for weeks or months past the date. Canned and frozen goods last for years. That package of chips you forgot about that’s a month out of date isn’t going to kill you — they just might be a tiny bit less crunchy than you’d like. (The huge exception is foods like deli meats and deli salads, which won’t be reheated before they’re consumed and can pick up listeria in the production process — but that’s the exception, not the rule.) You can check for the freshness of eggs by trying to float them in a glass of water (if it sinks, it’s good). Properly pasteurized milk, which is free of pathogens, should be fine if it tastes and smells fine. But many of us, with the best of intentions, just look at what the label says and throw out what’s old.

Is this a scam?

When I first realized that date labeling wasn’t linked directly to scientifically backed safety standards but to a more subjective, voluntary, and nebulous standard of “freshness,” I wondered if it was … well, kind of a scam. After all, customers don’t benefit from throwing out foods; grocers lose money; farmers miss out on possible sources of revenue. The only people who could benefit are the producers, and I could imagine an unscrupulous manufacturer shortening the date on their food so that people will sigh, throw out a half-eaten package that has “expired,” and go buy some more.

I asked Emily Broad Leib, the director of the Harvard Law School Food and Policy Clinic and lead author of the 2013 study, about this. She laughed and said I’m not the only one to wonder if we’re just getting played.

But, she said, manufacturers would say “there is a legitimate reason on their part, which is that they want you to eat things when they taste the absolute best.” The methods by which they determine that date can vary; a big manufacturer might run a focus group with consumers to determine the date, while a small producer may just hazard a guesstimate. But importantly, the freshness date almost never corresponds to the food’s safety — to whether or not it could make you sick.

Suppose you buy a particular brand of yogurt, Broad Leib says, and it waits around till it’s slightly past its peak. You might decide you don’t like this brand of yogurt, and buy a different one next time. The dates are, in part, a way of “protecting the brand,” she said. Their biggest incentive is to make sure you eat the food when it tastes the way they think it should.

But that doesn’t mean that the way we buy and eat food has no part in the blame, and producers don’t have to be insidious to be part of the issue. The fact that so many of us read a “best by” label as actually saying “bad after” is partly a public education problem, and it’s one that manufacturers haven’t worked too hard to combat. “It’s in the general interest of anybody trying to sell anything to continue to perpetuate the illusion that our foods are going bad all the time,” Adler said. “We could buy half as much food.”

Adler noted that our penchant for buying more than we need and then throwing out food that’s gone slightly past its peak is rooted, at its core, in a consumer mindset. “The only way that makes sense is if your cultural value is unfettered growth and profit at all costs,” she said. “There’s no other way that it makes sense to just throw stuff out.”

In fact, she said, it’s in direct contrast to what most food cultures practice around the world. “The whole idea that mold and bacteria are to be avoided at all costs is not only antithetical to good cooking, but it’s literally not practiced” in most cultures. Salami and cheese and pickles and sauerkraut and all kinds of food come from the natural process of aging — “in most cuisines of the world, there’s not as great a distinction between new food and old food; they’re just ingredients that you’d use differently,” she said. Those traditions certainly have been retained in regions where Americans still make kimchi and half-sours and farm cheese. But we’ve absorbed over time the idea that those natural processes are bad and will make us sick. Instead, we rely on companies to tell us what food is good for us and when to get rid of it.

Adler says part of the problem may also lie with our burgeoning “food as status performance” culture, in which particular foods trend on social media, or food media coaxes us to keep buying new ingredients to make something we saw in a picture or on TikTok. “That doesn’t do a great service for anybody trying to cook what they have,” she said. “If they don’t have the ingredients for the viral thing, then whatever they do have is just going to sit there, while they go get the other ingredients.”

Our shopping culture is also at fault

The problem is bigger than individual consumers. Some states bar grocery stores from donating or selling out-of-date foods to food banks and other services designed to help those living with food insecurity. The thinking is reasonable, even altruistic: Why would we give sub-par food to the “poor”? If I wouldn’t eat “expired” food, why would I give it to others? Distributors fear legal threats if someone eats past-dated food and becomes ill (something that has rarely happened, but it’s still a looming threat). That’s exacerbated by the way Americans shop. Think about it: How often do you see a shelf or bin or freezer in a grocery store that isn’t fully stocked to the brim? Supermarkets stock more food than they can sell, and that’s on purpose. Broad Leib told me that it’s common practice for supermarkets to plan for “shrink” — food they expect to be wasted. Shoppers in the US look askance at a shelf that isn’t fully stocked, or at a few potatoes left in the bin. “On the consumer side, you can understand,” she said. “You want to go to a store and have them have everything you want. And if you went in and they didn’t have what you want, then you’d go somewhere else.” We may not even realize it, but we’ve trained ourselves to see full crates of beets and shelves of salad dressing as a sign that the store is good, and therefore the food in it is good. Abundance indicates quality.

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