ó Like many Americans, Michelle Liss of Eden Prairie, Minn.,
pays close attention to the "sell by," "use
by" and "best before" labels on the packaged
and perishable foods in her kitchen.
get a little freaked out when an item is past the use by
date," she said. "I discard it when it isnít
people do the same thing, even though much of it is still
perfectly good to consume. In fact, Americans have grown to
rely so much on the food dating game since it was implemented
in the 1970s that we now throw away 20 percent of our food,
over 160 billion pounds of it per year, according to the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.
surprising that consumers take extra precautions when they
hear regularly about salmonella, E. coli or other foodborne
illnesses. But what started as a consumer demand that food be
verifiably fresh has evolved into a confusing mishmash of laws
that are different in each state. Only infant formula is
regulated by the federal government.
inconsistency is causing discarded food to be the largest
single contributor to the nationís landfills and costing
Americans money, according to a recent study by the Natural
Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy
Clinic. The average family of four that spends about $632 to
$1,252 per month on groceries is throwing away about $112 to
$190 each month on outdated food and restaurant leftovers,
amounts of food are being wasted, consumer advocates argue,
because of a misconception that eating food past its "use
by" date is about safety, when itís really about
are discarding items a day or two past their freshness date
because they think the items are potentially harmful when theyíre
not, said Sarah Klein, an attorney at the Center for Science
in the Public Interest.
may not taste as good as it did the day before," she
said. "But itís perfectly safe to eat. Thereís no
need to throw it away."
to get rid of food is when it looks, smells or tastes bad,
Klein said. In general, eat or freeze meat by its freshness
date, and throw out fresh seafood when in doubt.
put dates on nearly all of their food products because
consumers want them," said Ted LaBuza, professor of Food
Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota
experts say that manufacturers deserve some blame for excess
waste, too. Many consumers and some at the NRDC think that
manufacturers are shortening the date span on their products
to get consumers to buy more often, LaBuza said.
no state law (in Minnesota) telling manufacturers how to
determine the freshness date, so theyíre free to choose the
dates they want," he said. Nearly 70 percent of companies
just follow what their competitors are doing, LaBuza said.
shortening the "sell by" date range can also mean
that supermarkets and wholesalers get stuck with food at its
freshness date because safety- or freshness-conscious
consumers wonít buy it. Many consumers reach to the back of
a display for an item with the newest date and avoid others.
happens to the older items? When they donít sell, a retailer
risks its reputation for freshness by not removing them. A
supermarket can throw it out, but thatís often the most
expensive choice with rising trash removal costs.
returned to distributors and sold to food outlet stores.
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Discount Foods in Anoka, Fridley and Hilltop, So Low in
Minneapolis, and DealSmart in Little Canada and Mounds View
sell the items near or past their freshness dates at 30 to 70
percent off retail.
Abernathy, owner of Mikeís Discount Foods in Anoka, Minn.,
buys food thatís near its freshness date as well as surplus
food. Currently, heís selling chicken broth with a July 2013
freshness date at three for $1. "We keep dropping the
price until it sells," he said.
many consumers assume that food past its freshness date is
unsafe, they think selling it is illegal, which it isnít.
"The food is safe as long itís been handled properly.
The only thing you canít sell past its freshness date is
infant formula," he said.
food, for example, is generally safe for up to three years
after its freshness date, according to the USDA, but Abernathy
takes any canned goods off the shelf once theyíre a year
past their date.
the unsold food near its freshness date goes to local food
pantries, said Bob Chatmas, chief operations officer at Second
Harvest Heartland food bank in St. Paul. Second Harvest
collects perishable food from Cub, Rainbow, Target, Wal-Mart,
Samís Club, Lunds/Byerlyís and Quiktrip. In 2008 the food
bank collected 5 million pounds, but itís on track to
collect 30 million pounds this year.
accepting donations, Second Harvest uses guidelines from the
USDA and the Food Marketing Institute. "Our highest
priority is food safety," said Chatmas, whose
organization will serve almost 600,000 people this year in 59
counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
means proper storage. Itís the key to product freshness and
safety, LaBuza said. Refrigerator thermostats should be set at
about 40 degrees or lower. "If you keep the thermostat at
34 to 36 degrees, you can get twice the storage life than if
itís kept at 50 degrees," said LaBuza.
a fridge at 40 degrees, experts also recommend keeping stored
food away from a heat source such as an oven or a fridge. For
a comprehensive guide to length of time for food storage,
search for "The Food Keeper: A Consumer Guide to Food
Quality and Safe Handling" online, put out by the Food
Marketing Institute and Cornell University.
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effort is underway to demystify the current food labeling
system, but the NRDC recommends standard labeling language
that distinguishes between safety and quality-based dates,
increasing the number of "freeze by" dates when
possible, and putting the date labels in a predictable,
consistent location on the packages.
would be a helpful step for consumers, Liss said. "Right
now itís so confusing that I wonder if the dates are there
just because food companies want us to throw it away and buy
more," she said. "Standardization would be a nice