(Photo: Eileen Blass, USA TODAY)
SACRAMENTO - There tends to be a lot of confusion over the expiration dates on food packaging. Many people think the date indicates when the product goes bad, but the date actually represents an indication of freshness.
A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic found that more than 90 percent of Americans toss out food prematurely, and 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is tossed or unused every year because of food dating.
Words like "use by" and "sell by" are confusing consumers. "Use by" is typically a date for the manufacturer, to indicate when the product will reach its peak freshness point. "Sell by" is only intended for manufacturers and retailers so they know how to stock and market the product. For un-refrigerated foods, there may be no difference in taste or quality, and expired foods won't necessarily make people sick.
But food does eventually expire. Alexis Beeman purchased a fruit cup at a grocery store. It did not sit well with Beeman and her daughter. She checked the date and immediately knew why it made her feel sick. The fruit cup was more than a year old.
But some foods last longer than others. Eggs, for example, can be consumed three to five weeks after purchase, even though the "use by" date is much earlier. A box of macaroni and cheese stamped with a "use by" date of March 2013, can still be used in March 2014, and you likely won't notice a change in taste or quality.
The authors of this latest research suggest those dates we all pay such close attention to on the labels should actually not be available to consumers at all.
The study authors are also calling on Congress to develop national standards that would standardize a single set of dating requirements.