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Natural Awakenings

Expiration Dates: When to Eat or Toss Food

Glass bottles of milk with food labels of expiration dates on top

lanych/AdobeStock.com

Americans waste about 40 percent of the food supply every year, which translates to billions of pounds of edible food rotting in landfills and generating dangerous greenhouse gases, along with the dollars leaking out of our wallets. We squander limited resources like water and fuel and needlessly uptick our carbon footprint to produce and transport food that will never be consumed.

One major contributor to this problem is expiration labeling—those ambiguous “best before” or “sell by” dates on canned goods, prepared foods, egg cartons, milk jugs and meat packages. Consumers are not quite sure what they mean, and as a result, they often throw out ingredients that are perfectly good to eat.

Except for baby formula, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not require or regulate date labels. Generated by food manufacturers, these cryptic markings convey information about the quality and freshness of products rather than their safety.

Experts advise that food that doesn’t show signs of spoilage after a specified date can still be eaten. Instead of allowing a package date to dictate the lifecycle of food, we can rely on an item*s look, smell and taste to make that decision.

To become better stewards of the environment, we need to become food conservationists—purchase only what we will consume, plan meals to cook the most perishable items first, scrape the fuzz off sour cream or yogurt, snip off the mold on a block of cheese, freeze items we aren’t going to consume in a timely manner, and eat everything on our plates.

What Labels Mean

Best if used by/before date indicates when a product is at peak quality and flavor.

Freeze by date denotes when an item should be frozen to maintain peak quality.

Sell by date tells a retailer how long to display the product for sale.

Actual Food Life Span

Milk lasts seven to 10 days after the “sell by” date. If it smells bad, chuck it. Otherwise, it’s safe.

Eggs typically stay fresh in the fridge three to five weeks past the “pack date.”

Meat should be cooked or frozen within two days of bringing it home.

Cheese lasts refrigerated from one to eight weeks. Harder, aged varietals last longer. It’s safe to remove mold and continue enjoying the rest.

Canned goods don’t expire. The “best by” or “use by” dates only relate to peak freshness, flavor and texture. Store in a cool, dark place, and don’t buy bulging, dented, leaking or rusted cans. 

Fruits and vegetables with blemishes taste the same, are a fraction of the cost  and safe to eat.

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