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Serious Food Waste Occurs Due to Confusion over “Sell-By Date”

I have developed a strong interest in food waste since I began volunteering at my local food pantry. We help to alleviate food insecurity in the local community by rescuing perfectly edible food that is often past its “sell-by date.” I have cultivated this interest, in part, because food waste also contributes to global warming, another  long-time concern of mine.

According to a recent article in The Guardian, if food waste were a country, it would rank as the third highest national emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.

The worst food waste occurs in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where consumers waste 39% of all food purchased, followed by Europe, where about 31% of all food purchased by consumers is thrown away.9a326bf5b6200284da7377644df83796

With the global population rising, wastage of products including 45% of all fruit and vegetables and 20% of meat is one of the greatest challenges to achieving food security. If the amount of food wasted around the world were reduced by just 25% there would be enough food to feed all the people who are malnourished, according to the UN.

According to Business Insider, experts estimate that $165 billion worth of food gets tossed each year, much of it wasted, out of fear of bogus expiration dates.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) advises you to purchase the product before the “sell-by date,” but most expiration dates are largely made up. According to The National Resource Defense Council, the “sell-by dates” simply tell you when food will reach its limits for “optimal quality.”

The USDA notes that it’s OK to eat these foods past the expiration dates on the packaging, with the exception of infant formula. The USDA advises parents to not buy or even use baby formula once the “use by” date rolls around.
A rule of thumb to go by is to pay attention to when you purchased or opened the food, rather than what the packaging says.

If in doubt, the website StillTasty provides helpful tips on when to dispose of hundreds of household goods.

We need more ways to educate the public with regard to the definition of the “sell-by date,” in order to dispel the fear of consuming expired food, thereby reducing food waste. It seems to me that many of us waste a good deal of money, as well as the opportunity help those in need, by disposing of edible food we fear is no longer fit for consumption.

39 Responses to Serious Food Waste Occurs Due to Confusion over “Sell-By Date”

  • Andy says:

    I once bought a half-gallon of Tropicana orange juice that was ten days past its sell-by date. It was perfectly fine.

  • I tend to check the dates on products and don’t use them if they are passed their expiration. It’s just a habit.

  • Tim says:

    I have always held the opinion that the expiration dates were more a marketing tool than a tool by which to measure the health of a food product. Its like medication. It doesn’t stop working at midnight of the expiration date.

    • Wise words Tim! I hope more people become like-minded sooner rather than later so we can slow down climate change and end world hunger, not to mention the financial savings for consumers. Thanks for your comment.

  • Thank-you for this post, I’ve sent this post to my daughter and son. They drove me crazy tossing good food because of the expiration date, especially frozen food. Perhaps they’ll be more open to the information when someone other than their mother presents it to them. : )

    • In general, and if packaged properly, frozen food lasts a very long time. I understand your frustration about watching your children throw away money. Thank you for your comment, Pamela, and sharing my post with them. I hope they find it useful to know that throwing away your expired food, benefits the food manufacturers and suppliers to the detriment of the consumer.

  • Michele — I’m one of those people who always checks the “sell-by” date on the products I buy. I know that many foods are good way past sell-by dates, but we’ve been conditioned to think they are no good or possibly make us sick. When I was a youngster, there weren’t any sell-by dates. That’s actually a fairly new development. Many supermarkets will sell food at a discount that has “expired.” So it can’t be bad if they are doing that. I agree that we waste so much food in this country. We live a life a bounty while others starve.

    • It’s true that many stores sell some expired food at a discount, however, the bulk of it is tossed away, when it could be made available to alleviate food insecurity. The only expiration date I pay attention to is the one on a milk carton. Thanks for your comment, Jeannette.

  • To be honest, i am one of those people that have been dumping food. I feel cheated, Oh dear! we learn everyday. Michele thanks for this post.

  • Michele, thx so much for this post. I find it utterly shocking that nearly 40% of food purchased in Canada and the U.S. Is thrown away!!! I was brought up to never waste food and I’m quite certain that we don’t waste more than 10% of the food we purchase. Even that amount bothers me.

    • I agree Doreen! The statistics are truly shocking. If billboards were posted everywhere showing these statistics graphically, things would probably start to change more quickly. It’s so important to increase awareness of the food waste situation and the scope of its ramifications. I was also brought up not to waste food, and like you, I don’t believe I waste more than 10% of the food I purchase, and what I do waste, is along the lines of spoiled milk…Thanks for your comment!

  • Hi Michele, I must admit I’m guilty of going by the sell by date as the throw away by date. We are just so conditioned to think like that here in US. Thanks for opening our eyes to the extreme amount of waste!

    • True, Susan! We are conditioned. When I first went down to South America, I was surprised to see unrefrigerated eggs for sale in all the grocery stores. I had never seen them sold this way in any of our stores. I was also surprised to see that none of the milk sold was refrigerated either, and that it didn’t need to be refrigerated, until it was opened. Thanks for your comment.

  • I’ve stopped paying too much attention to the sell-by date as well. Depending on the brand of milk I buy, it sometimes spoils before the date and then other brands will last quite a few days after that date. It’s hard to know what info to trust other than my eyes and nose 😉

    • With regard to milk, I always look for a carton with the latest “sell-by date.” Another option is to purchase nonfat dry powdered milk and to reconstitute it as you need it. Powdered milk lasts a very long time in the pantry. I certainly agree that your eyes and nose are a very accurate gauge for determining safety and freshness. Thanks for your comment, Jeri!

  • Erica says:

    I honestly never even look at the sell by date. If I’ve had something open for a while, I’ll check it out to make sure it still looks edible and if it looks at all suspect, then I’ll toss it. But other than that, I never even worry about it. I guess it is the way I was brought up. My dad was a chemist, so he had a different perspective on things. He once told me it was fine to eat a yogurt after it has been left out all night. His theory was that the cultures from the yogurt would destroy any bacteria from being left out. Well, I nervously tried it and he was right!

    • I agree with you and your chemist dad, Erica! We have been taught a lot of things regarding food safety which seem to benefit the food manufacturers and grocery chains, more than they do the consumer. Thanks for your comment.

  • Ken Dowell says:

    I would hope that I am well below the 39% average for food waste in the U.S. But I admit to being skittish about consuming foods after the expiration date, especially with dairy products like milk and eggs, I’m afraid to use them once I’ve gone past the date stamped on the carton. Thanks for the info. I’ll pay more attention in the future.

  • Sabrina Q. says:

    Interesting information Michele! I try to use everything in my refrigerator before the end of the month. My husband and I tell each other “push the …. (whatever food needs to be used in the fridge)” We use it as leftovers of other dishes and try our best not to throw food away if possible. Thanks for sharing this important reminder.

    • I’m the same way, Sabrina! I try not to waste anything and I am usually successful. As folks become more aware of the meaning behind so called “expiration dates,” and as laws change with regard to how food distribution is handled, hopefully food waste will decline both severely and sustainably, on a global level. Thanks for your comment.

  • heraldmarty says:

    Really interesting information Michele. I’ve worked with the food bank in our state, served on the board, managed PR and chaired 3 county food drives, so I also have a little experience in this area. As consumers we can definitely do our part and educating ourselves is the first step. That said, my father worked for a major grocery store chain for over 40 years so between what I saw growing up and working with our local retailers know firsthand the volume of food that’s wasted in that area, not to mention restaurants. This is an important topic and I’m so glad you’re working to raise awareness!

    • Wow Marquita! Maybe I should have interviewed you prior to writing my article. You sure do have a lot of knowledge regarding food waste. At least we are able to receive donations of high quality food at the food pantry. Our clients are very grateful for the help we offer which comes from various supermarkets as well as Starbucks and other retail establishments. Thank you for your comment!

  • Donna Janke says:

    It really is a shame how much food we waste. I am trying to buy less and have less stocked up in my cupboard where it gets pushed to the back. I am okay with using some stuff past its expiry date, but when I pulled out tins from the back of the pantry last year in preparation for moving and saw expiry dates several years in the past I was stunned.

    • According to StillTasty, your ultimate shelf life guide, unopened canned vegetables that are kept in a pantry and are not bulging, leaking, rusted, or severely dented, should last anywhere from 2-5 years. As long as the product looks okay and does not have an odor, those tins should be fine. Thanks for your comment, Donna!

  • Beth Niebuhr says:

    My husband is always at me to throw food away because of the sell by date. Thanks for this great article to feed my arguments! The Still Tasty link is a terrific resource!

  • Phoenicia says:

    It saddens me that food is wasted in the western world, yet in some third world countries, people do not have nearly enough. I personally deteste food waste of any kind. People have become greedy and wasteful.

    With regards to product sell by dates, I reach for items at the very back of the shelf. The dates most furthest away are always kept at the back.

    • Food waste of any kind is detestable to me as well, Phoenicia! For items such as milk, I too reach for the back of the shelf in order to find the later date so it will last longer. Thanks for your comment.

  • lenie5860 says:

    I am so glad you wrote this and I hope this post goes viral. This has long been a sore point with me and this past week I read another article on it that stated the best by date was set for the stores – this was the date they had to sell it by. I know I always check the last day of sale or expired BBD racks and have never had a problem. I know what to look for – no obvious bad spots (soft doesn’nt matter), no mold ever, no serious discoloration, no liquid in meat packages etc.The other obvious fact about picking items up from these racks – no retailers wants to put their store in a questionable legal position by placing bad food there.
    Thanks Michele,

    • The best-by date is set for the stores and of course it also benefits the manufacturer because if food, past the date, is discarded, then additional food is purchased to replace it. Thanks for your comment Lenie!

  • jacquiegum says:

    OMG! You mean to tell me that I have been dumping good food??? Oh my…thanks for this post. I will check pout that site because I am one of the ones who have been duped into dumping!!!

  • Catarina says:

    In France there’s a new law forcing shops to give food that’s past it’s sell by date to charity in order to give it to homeless and refugees. Similar schemes, though optional, are being implemented in other European countries.

    Personally know a woman who gets fruit that would look bad in the eyes of consumers and turns it into cider, jam and a lot of other items that are sold in shops and online.

    Some students in Europe actually raid containers outside supermarkets and pick up food that’s been thrown away although it’s perfectly fine. It’s their way of spending less of their student loans.

    • Yes, I read about the new law in France! I hope we follow suit here in The States! At the food pantry, we are also exploring the idea of providing seeds and encouraging clients to grow some of their own food. Some folks here also raid containers outside supermarkets since so much perfectly good food is discarded. Thanks for your comment, Catarina!

  • patweber says:

    This statement has me confused: “According to The National Resource Defense Council, the “sell-by dates” simply tell you when food will reach its limits for “optimal quality.” Only confused because I don’t know a thing about the NRDC. Will have to check out who they are.

    I have wondered about sell by/expiry dates for a long time. Thanks for this Michele.

    • Founded in 1970, The National Resource Defense Council is an international environmental advocacy group formed by lawyers and scientists involved in issues having to do with environmental sustainability. For more detailed information, I agree you should check out who they are. Thanks for your comment, Pat.

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