It’s breakfast time. You pull a carton of milk out of the fridge, excited for a bowl of delicious cereal. But to your horror, you notice your milk has expired.
What do you do?
Maybe you sniff it, take a swig. Maybe you toss it.
Either way, you probably shouldn’t worry too much about what the date on the carton says. In the U.S., date labels are generally terrible at telling people when their food will become unsafe to consume, some experts say.
That could change soon, however. Advocacy groups like environmental nonprofit Feedback are pushing food producers to replace confusing labels with clearer date markers. In addition, recently proposed federal legislation would standardize date labeling across the country. Both efforts aim to replace the current date labeling system with two labels: one for quality (”best if used by”) and one for safety (”expires on”).
Up to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes uneaten every year, according to a widely cited 2009 study of food waste. Nearly 20 percent of food waste in people’s homes is caused by the confusing date labeling system, according to Niki Charalampopoulou, managing director of Feedback. Simply making date labels easier to understand would avoid 398,000 tons of wasted food every year, one study found.
Proponents of clearer date labels say they’re a much needed mend to a food system that churns out gobs of waste. Fixing date labels is the “low-hanging fruit” in the fight to eliminate wasted food, Dominika Jarosz, a campaign manager at Feedback, told The Huffington Post. “It’s a relatively simple fix and it would have a massive impact,” she said.
There’s a welter of labels out there (”sell by,” “use by,” “best before,” “expires on,” “enjoy by,” etc.). None of them are regulated by the federal government, and few actually indicate when consuming something poses a threat to your health.
In general, food producers get to come up with their own date labels based on when they think their products will go bad or lose their freshness. Some states have laws requiring food producers to put date labels on their products, but the rules vary from state to state. The result is a patchwork labeling system that can leave consumers perplexed, according to Emily Broad Leib, director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard University.
Some state food labeling laws “just say there can be any date label and it just has to appear on certain foods,” Broad Leib told HuffPost. “It’s still up to the manufacturer to set those dates.”
“Some companies say, ‘We literally just pick a date out of thin air,’” she added.
In early 2016, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic produced a (surprisingly dramatic) video, seen below, explaining the problems with confusing date labels.
Confusing and inconsistent labeling can baffle shoppers. Less than half of people surveyed for one study knew the difference between “sell by” and “use by” dates (for the record: “sell by” is for grocers, and “use by” usually tells shoppers when food is freshest). Over a third of consumers said they always throw out food close to or past its expiration date, and nearly 90 percent said they do so occasionally, according to a survey from Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.
In general, people tend to wrongly assume that date labels indicating a food’s freshness (like “best before”) are telling them when their food will no longer be safe to eat. That can cause people to needlessly toss food that’s a little old.
The worst that happens if you eat something spoiled is it doesn’t taste good and you’re like, ‘That was gross.’ Emily Broad Leib, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic
The vast majority of food is safe to eat even after it passes the date on the label, Broad Leib said. “The worst that happens if you eat something spoiled is it doesn’t taste good and you’re like, ‘That was gross,’” she added. “But we’re starting to realize we only prioritize safety and we draw a halo around safety -- then we end up throwing away food.”
While experts say boiling expiration labels down into two easy-to-understand dates would help reduce waste, making labels clearer isn’t going to solve the country’s massive food waste problem on its own, Broad Leib said.
“I don’t think it’s the silver bullet where if we address this one issue we’re going to eliminate the problem,” Broad Leib said. “If this is going to work we’re going to have to do a lot of education.”
So let’s start now. That milk from earlier, it’s almost certainly OK to drink.
“It’s actually fine to consume milk sometimes two weeks after it has expired,” Feedback's Charalampopoulou said. Besides, she added, "your senses are the best guide."
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