Sept. 17, 2021 — You look in the fridge and see your favorite coffee creamer is set to expire.
It’s half-full, and you know what that means.
Sigh. You must, sadly, throw it away.
And unless you’re feeding a small army, you may even look at some products and wonder: How in the world are people supposed to finish this so quickly?
The good news, or bad news as you’ll see below, is that many people use the term “expiration date” all wrong. The point, says PIRG, a consumer watchdog group, is not just to keep you from throwing out still-good food and wasting money, but also to reduce the massive amounts of food that is wasted each year.
Apart from certain baby formulas, dates next to labels like “Best-By” and “Use-By” are rarely talking about when products are spoiled or no longer safe to eat or drink, according to a new tip guide by PIRG Consumer Watchdog.
Rather, these dates are largely referring to when products are at their highest quality; for example, when they’re most flavorful.
So that family member you tease for “letting it stretch” past the date on the package? Their instincts have likely been right.
It’s also important to know that product dating is not federally required, meaning it doesn’t have to meet federal standards.
These dates are also not always based on science, so they’re not as accurate as we may believe.
What’s more, our products are often completely OK to eat past the date on the package.
PIRG breaks down different labels:
“Best if Used By” or “Best if Used Before”: The date the product will have its best flavor or quality
“Use-By”: The last date the product will likely be at its highest quality
“Freeze-By”: The date you should freeze a product for it to maintain its top quality
“Sell-By”: This label is directed toward the retailer for inventory purposes. This is the last date that the product should be displayed in the store.
These are called “open dating” labels, PIRG says.
You may have noticed that some nonperishable items, like canned soups and vegetables, have a string of longer-digit numbers and letters.
This is “closed dating.” It tells you the date the product was made.
Check Your Eggs
Food dating for eggs and other poultry products is slightly different, the PIRG guide says.
If you see an egg carton with a USDA grade (“Grade AA” being the highest quality, vs. “Grade A” having slightly less quality), there is also a three-digit number that tells you the day of the year the eggs were washed and packed, the guide says.
For example, Jan. 5 would be 005. Dec. 31 would be 365.
There may also be a “Best-By” date on your egg package, but again, the eggs are likely still safe to eat after the date, says the guide.
In fact, your eggs can last up to 5 weeks after you bought them if stored in the coldest part of your fridge, and in their original packaging, according to the guide.
Bottled water can last indefinitely if stored correctly, like in a cool, dark space away from strong smells and extreme temperatures.
Packages of wild and white rice that are unopened can last for 2 years in your cupboard, the guide says.
Other products, like canned meats and veggies, can last between 3 and 5 years.
Between 30% and 40% of the food supply in the United States is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Every year, 108 billion pounds of food are wasted in the U.S., equaling about $161 billion worth of perfectly safe food, according to Feeding America, a U.S. nonprofit organization with a network of over 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries.
More public knowledge of date labels could prevent half a million tons of food being wasted, PIRG says.
For instance, in some states, you are not even allowed to donate products to people in need if it has passed the “Sell-By” date.
Feeding America, along with its partners, rescued over 4 billion pounds of groceries last year, including 1.8 billion pounds of fresh produce, according to the organization.
Feeding America works with retailers, farmers, and others to collect and donate safe, high-quality food that would have otherwise been thrown away.
The federal government has also taken action.
In 2018, the FDA, USDA, and Environmental Protection Agency teamed up to create the “Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative,” which works to educate more Americans on food waste, including understanding product date labels.
The agencies also work with retailers and manufacturers to reduce food loss and waste while they are growing, transporting, and selling products.
When to Toss It Out
So how do you know when products have actually gone bad?
Some people do the “taste test” to check whether products have spoiled. This is a dangerous method, since even a tiny amount of certain bacteria can make you sick, according to the guide.
If a food or drink tastes spoiled, you should spit it out and throw the rest away.
You should also look out for symptoms of food poisoning, like diarrhea or nausea, and reach out to your doctor or other health care workers if symptoms worsen.
Instead, the smell test is a safer option, says the guide. If a product smells rotten, it’s probably best to toss it.
Changes in a product’s color or texture, like moldy bread or milk that gets lumpy, is a sign that it’s likely unsafe to eat or drink.
If a product’s package is dented or changes shape, this could be a sign of contamination due to bacteria inside releasing gas, says the guide.
If you open a can or jar of food and bursts of air or product gush out, or it has a frothy residue, all could be signs that the product is spoiled. You should look out for other signs of contamination before eating.
If you’d like more information on how long specific products are likely to stay safe before and after you open them, you can check out the FoodKeeper App from FoodSafety.gov.