Should You Trust Those Food Expiration Dates? Here’s What the Experts Say – CNET

Food waste is a global issue. Not only does it contribute to the growing hunger problem around the world, but it accounts for nearly 60% of greenhouse landfill gas emissions. The Biden-Harris administration lined out a new plan to reduce food waste. It’s on you to determine whether food is actually spoiled or not before tossing it out. 

If you know you’re dealing with expired food, you can always use a countertop composter to keep organic waste out of the dump. Before you decide to toss it, brush up on your ability to discern when food is and isn’t expired so you don’t get rid of perfectly good consumables. 

Americans produce 325 pounds of food waste per person, per year and much of that is discarded food thought to be expired and no longer fit for consumption. Some of this can be attributed to food scraps. Concerned? Much of that food waste can be blamed on tossing away food that may still be safe for consumption, but whose printed expiration date has passed.

Throwing away potentially unspoiled food isn’t only a food waste issue, but a financial waste issue. “I’ve seen a statistic that if a consumer really did more diligence against expiration dates, they could save up to about $1,300 per year,” says Christopher Greco, CEO of Storewise, a software platform for independent grocers who I spoke with about food expiration dates. 

What are expiration dates?

best by date on mustard best by date on mustard

If the best-by date is several years ago, you’d be wise to send it packing. 

Alina Bradford/CNET

There’s a lot of nuance both in terms of quality and safety, respective to the expiration date, especially for those products that are less shelf stable in nature. 

Greco walks us through a variety of scenarios given a common household product with a near-future expiration date, milk, where both storage and transportation variables can have an impact on its state, even after the expiration date has already been printed on the package. “You could have a different profile if that milk was dropped at the grocery store by the distributor, and it sat in the back unrefrigerated for even 20 or 30 minutes before it was put away,” he says. “If you bought that milk in South Florida, where it’s 100 degrees, and you drove 30 minutes home, that would have an impact on the quality as well.” 

Best-by, use-by, sell-by and freeze-by dates

assorted groceries on table assorted groceries on table

Several factors contribute to how long food stays safe to eat including storage, packaging and environment.

David Watsky/CNET

These phrases can be helpful guidelines for the consumer, but it is important to note that besides the case of infant formula, expiration dates are not required by federal law. As indicated above, none of these refer to a matter of safety where consumption is concerned. In short, you’re going to have to rely on your senses either way, including common sense, to determine whether food is safe to consume.

Using common sense

chicken sell by date chicken sell by date

I bought this chicken on March 11th, 2024 but the sell-by date wasn’t for another week. 

David Watsky/CNET

Read more: Chicken Labels Are Confusing. Here’s What They Do (and Don’t) Mean

Some items are very obviously spoiled, when they exhibit signs of mold or decay, or when the smell becomes off-putting. (Even if it exhibits some mold, you probably don’t need to throw your cheese away.) Items that have a natural preservative quality, such as cheese, pickled products or those with a high vinegar content, or other preserved products such as jam, are much more likely to become unpalatable to you or bland in flavor before they become unsafe.

In-person shopping helps with expiration dates and food waste

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