Study Shows Expiration Date Confusion Causes Food Waste

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COLUMBIA -A recent study by the National Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law school found 90 percent of Americans prematurely toss out food because they misinterpret dates on food labels as indicators of food safety.

"It's unnecessary paranoia. We are actually wasting a huge amount of our food supply because of consumers believing, 'Oh well, this food is probably not good anymore, I need to throw it out,' so the household food waste is enormous," MU Food Science Professor Ingolf Gruen said.  

Expiration dates, "best-by" dates, and "sell-by" dates all mean different things and for some Columbia residents, the fear of expired food does lead to wasted food. 

"When I worked at the produce department at Walmart, I've seen customers not get something because it was two days before its expiration date and not buy it because of that," Hy-Vee shopper Glen McDonald said.  

Gruen said expiration dates should be used as guidelines for consumers and not hard deadlines.  Gruen also said best-buy dates mean the product's quality will be at its best by that date and expiration/use-by dates have at least a two- to three-day grace period.  

Holding a can of canned meat, Gruen said, "If you have a canned good--this one in fact with the expiration date 2007--six years past its so-called expiration date, I would have no problem opening this product and eating it. Simply because I look at this can, its still nicely sealed, nothing bulging, seams are perfectly fine. This is a good product, you can probably eat it for another 10-15 years."

The FDA does not regulate expiration date labelling with the exception of baby food.  Some states have specific labelling requirements, but Missouri does not.  Hy-Vee registered dietitian Megan Kemp said the health concerns for eating spoiled food are minor.

"But for the most part, it's not so much about food safety, but more a quality of food," Kemp said. "And so there are definitely serious illnesses from those things, from eating something past the expiration date, but it's not necessarily something very serious for most cases." 

The Natural Resources Defense Council recommends consumers do the following to increase their food's refrigerator life:

  • Place meat, poultry and fish on the bottom shelf where the temperature is lowest
  • Place moderately perishable items like condiments in the door shelves where the temperature is highest