Dumping food that has passed an expiration date contributes greatly to food waste in the home, but unfortunately the short answer is that there is no ground truth about expiration dates. Surprisingly, there are no federal laws establishing regulations for dating foods for either quality or safety except for infant formula. The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service only in 2019 recommended that labeling for food quality use “Best If Used By,” but there are as many as 50 different date labels that have appeared on products. The USDA FSIS has no recommendations for food safety labeling, leaving this up to manufacturers, which seems strange for a government service established to ensure food safety.
So, what can you do?
The Food and Drug Administration provides resources that can help consumers make decisions about food storage. In particular, the FDA maintains an easy-to-use FoodKeeper App and a refrigerator and freezer storage chart (links below). Understanding the difference between food quality dates and food safety helps. Most date labeling on food refers to food quality, not safety. Food is safe long after those dates. Scott Nash, the founder and CEO of Mom’s Organic Market, experimented on himself by eating “expired” food for an entire year, including meat and dairy, sometimes long after their package expiration dates. Trust your nose and eyes. If food isn’t moldy and doesn’t smell bad, it is likely safe to eat. You can help reduce the need to decide about expired food by planning and avoiding bulk and impulse purchases.
- The FDA FoodKeeper App can be found at: https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/foodkeeper-app
- The Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Chart can be found on page 4 of an FDA publication on food safety downloadable at: https://www.fda.gov/media/101389/download
- “Best if used by.” The FDA renders its decision on food expiration date labels, The Washington Post, May 23, 2019
- Confused by Date Labels on Packaged Foods?, The Food and Drug Administration, accessed January 19, 2020
- My Year of Eating “Expired” Food, Blog post by Scott Nash, February 11, 2019