Don’t Throw Away That “Expired” Food Just Yet

Imagine that you go to the grocery store and buy three bags of groceries – and then drop one of them in the garbage in the parking lot! This comparison illustrates consumer food waste in America because we throw away a third of our food based on an arbitrary dating. Manufacturers mark calendar dates on food products that are perishable like meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products and on shelf-stable products like canned goods and other nonperishables. The only food product that is required by the FDA to have an accurate use-by date is baby formula, because the formula loses nutritional value that babies depend on. For foods like eggs the requirements are on a state by state basis, with some states requiring a sell-by/use-by date and other states not allowing a date to be printed at all.

We have all seen the dates and think, “okay, this food is bad – now I shall throw it away,” without a second thought. As it turns out, these dates are not set in stone. Even though they are defined by the United States Department of Agriculture division of Food Safety and Inspection Service, they are created by the manufacturing company to make you buy more of their product.

A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale and is typically found on perishable item like meat, eggs and dairy products. It is recommended to buy the product before the date expires. A “Best if Used By (or before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality and is typically seen on shelf stable products like mustard and peanut butter. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.


Collage created by Sher. Image credits here, here, and here.

Besides an arbitrary date telling you that your food has gone rancid and should be tossed in the garbage, there are other reasons you should think twice about not throwing out that expired food. Food waste is a compostable and renewable resource, but 97% of food waste is thrown away, which alone accounts for 36.5 million tons of material put into our landfills in single year. According to the Green Restaurant Association, a single average restaurant in the U.S can produce 25,000 to 75,000 pounds of food waste annually – and that is just one! There are 48 million food insecure people who could have utilized those resources if they were allocated properly.

Where food waste hits close to home is that it is a waste of your money. According to the National Resource Defense Council, the average family throws out $2,225 of food they bought and didn’t eat. This adds up to $165 billion of wasted food in America in a single year, due to premature tossing of food based on arbitrary food dates, overpurchasing, letting food go bad, and improper storage. It also costs that American people an additional $1.3 billion a year just to dispose of this garbage. Last, but certainly not least, throwing away perfectly good food is a complete waste of water and soil resources. I place much personal responsibility on the consumer because it is we who vote with our dollars and can shift the system in a more sustainable direction. We can encourage – if not demand – companies to make the same changes we are making by not producing so much food, or by composting food waste in restaurants.

All in all it comes down to being aware that these dates were put there by the manufacturer to ensure that more product be made and shipped to further their bottom line. Trust your gut and be aware of signs of decay like a stench, mold or discoloration. Also know that we the consumers are not the sole nor the largest contributors to the waste of food. It should be our duty as a community to encourage the distributors of this food to follow in the footsteps of our local Albertson’s grocery store which donates a lot of its “expired” food to The Store House where it is given out to people in need.

-Posted by Sher

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