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Food dating: Tips to reduce food waste

More than 80 percent of Americans discard perfectly good, safe food simply because they misunderstand food date labels. Wasted food ends up in landfills, nearly 60 million tons a year in the United States alone. That is estimated to be almost 40 percent of the entire U.S. food supply. Food in landfills means an increase in methane gas production, a greenhouse gas leading to climate change.

There are economic implications for reducing food waste. Wasted food means less food on the tables of those who really need it. It is estimated that 130 billion meals could be rescued if overwise safe food was kept out of the trash. Since millions of Americans are living with food insecurity, learning how to interpret the dates on labels could mean more food on the table.

How to interpret food label dates

Terms used on the label—“sell by,” “use by,” “expires on,” “best before” or “best by”—can be confusing. Often when a food passes the date on the label, the food gets tossed into the garbage to avoid potential foodborne illness. Without federal regulations related to date labels on food products (aside from infant formulas), it is left up to each individual state to set guidelines.

The dates are set by food manufacturers based on when the food will still taste fresh. These dates do not indicate a food product’s safety. How long after the date a food can be safely eaten depends on the food product and if handed properly until the time spoilage is evident.

While attempts have been made to help simplify the product dating system, it is still left up to the consumers to evaluate the safety of the product prior to its consumption to determine if the product shows signs of spoilage.

Freezing is a good option

Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to the naturally occurring spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten. A change in the color of meat or poultry is not necessarily an indicator of spoilage.  If meat or poultry has changed color plus has an off odor, is sticky or tacky to the touch or becomes slimy, it should not be used. If the label recommends eating the food within a certain number of days after opening the package, eat it before that window closes.

Freezing is a good option for extending the shelf life of many packaged foods. Use the USDA’s FoodKeeper App for information on how to safely store different foods to maximize freshness and quality. You can also contact the manufacturer listed on the package for more questions about the shelf life, quality or safety of a packaged food you have purchased.

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