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Food Label Confusion



A friend called me the other day to ask if it was OK to eat the eggs in her fridge that were past their sell-by date. I asked her what the date was. It was only a few days past the “Sell-by” date. I told her I would eat them.


Dates on grocery food pose a conundrum. Is it OK to eat food that has exceeded its labeling date? It depends.The United States wastes 30 to 40 percent of food produced. That waste ends up in our landfills, approximately 133 billion pounds of food waste per year, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Waste of this magnitude poses several problems, especially in a world where millions of people are food insecure. Food waste takes up more space in U.S. landfills than any other type of waste, including outdated food.


Food labeling dates on groceries are not only confusing but may add to the waste in our landfills. More than 80 percent of Americans misunderstand labeling on grocery items and throw food out unnecessarily.


No uniform labeling According to the FDA, no uniform or universally accepted descriptions are used on food labels for open dating in the United States. The only exception is infant formula. Even more interesting is product dating is not required by federal regulation. Therefore, it is left to the manufacturers to set dates. The labeling conundrum creates enormous amounts of discarded garbage while manufacturers make more money.

The United States wastes 30 to 40 percent of food produced. That waste ends up in our landfills, approximately 133 billion pounds of food waste per year, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

I opened my refrigerator to explore the labels of groceries. The labels were stamped with “Sell-by,” “Use-by” and “Best-if-used-by” dates. Not one was stamped with “Expired-by” or “Don’t-use-after” dates.


How can you tell whether food is OK to eat beyond the date stamped on the container?

It’s important always to look and smell. Is the cheese moldy? Does the milk smell bad? If so, toss it.

The pantry is another area to explore. That jar of oregano tucked away in the pantry is still fine to use but may have lost some of its zing. Spices get old and lose their potency but won’t make you sick if you use them.


Oils are easy to tell if they are rancid. They smell awful and taste even worse. Ever tasted rancid nuts or chips? They taste terrible. Flour and sugar tend to last forever. Most items with vinegar are prone to last since vinegar is a preservative.

Canned goods also last well beyond their expiration dates. I read a story of a sunken ship discovered in the Missouri River. They found cans of food more than 100 years old. When chemists tested the cans of food, they were still safe to eat.


Smell perishables, meats Perishables are generally easy to determine if they are past their prime. If you look at a bag of prewashed lettuce, that black yucky stuff that occurs on old greens is a sign it’s going bad. Or if you pick up a package of meat and it’s gray, don’t buy it. Meat, poultry and fish are perishable. Open the package and make sure to smell it. If it smells funny or off, return it to the store with a receipt or throw it out.


The same goes for other perishable items that languish in the fridge. Cook perishables before they go bad or freeze them. Meats, cheese, dairy, and bread can all be frozen. Most vegetables can be frozen except for celery, cucumbers, potatoes, lettuce, and radishes. It is best to blanch vegetables before freezing.


Fruit can be frozen, too. Store berries before they go bad in a sealable freezer bag. They are great for smoothies and compote for pancakes or pie. Even some dinner leftovers can be frozen and eaten later — think lasagna.


Once a container of milk, sour cream, yogurt, or deli meat is opened, the product begins to degrade and will eventually go bad.


Compost, if possible If you need to throw out perishables, composting is a great way to deal with waste. Check composting rules in your area.


If you're not going to eat your veggies before they go bad- blanch them Prepare an ice bath for the vegetables. Fill a large bowl with ice and water and set aside. Bring a large pot with a gallon of water and a dash of salt to a boil. Place 1 pound of vegetables in the pot of boiling water. Submerge the vegetables and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the vegetable (blanching carrots takes longer than asparagus). Place vegetables in an ice bath for 3 minutes. Drain, place in a sealable freezer bag and freeze.

Understanding labels

Best if used by or before This date indicates when a product will be of the best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Sell by This date informs a store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. This is not a safety date.

Use by This date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.

Freeze by This date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

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