Date labeling on food products is a source of confusion for many Americans, according to a new NSF International survey. The survey found that many people are unsure how to interpret common dates found on food product labels, such as sell by, use by and best used by dates, which is causing some to prematurely throw away good food while others are keeping bad food too long.
The survey revealed that one in four (27 percent) Americans doesn’t throw away food past the expiration date, which could lead to exposure to foodborne pathogens including Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. In addition, half of the U.S. population (51 percent) throws out food based on the “best used by” and another third (36 percent) throws out food based on the “sell by” date, leading to unnecessary food waste and higher grocery bills.
Perhaps because of this confusion, a majority of consumers (64 percent) rely on the decidedly unscientific approach of using their senses to decide when to throw out food. Nearly half (47 percent) of the survey respondents admitted to using visual cues such as mold or a change in color or texture to help determine if food is still fresh, while another 17 percent acknowledged waiting until food smells bad before discarding.
Other interesting survey findings include:
- Americans are most cautious with dairy and meat products. The survey revealed that more than three-fourths (78 percent) of consumers will throw out dairy products, such as milk, sour cream, cream cheese or yogurt when the date on the label has passed. Similarly 73 percent of respondents said they will throw out meat when the label date has passed.
- Dry goods are less of a concern for consumers. Only one-quarter (27 percent) of consumers throw away dry goods, such as cereal, pasta or chips if the label date has passed. In addition, 33 percent do the same for frozen items and 36 percent throw away canned goods when label date has passed.
- Confusion varies according to age. Those over age 55 are the most likely to hold on to food past any date on the label, which could expose them to foodborne illness. Yet those under 34 are more likely to throw out foods quickly regardless of the date posted on the label, potentially wasting good food.
When it comes to understanding dates on food packaging, keep in mind that not all label dates indicate food safety. Below are the three most common types of food labeling found in the U.S.
- Expiration or use by dates – are the two types of dates that refer to food safety.
- Sell by dates – are references for retailers to let them know how long to display an item for sale.
- Best used by dates – are a guide to how long a product will retain peak quality and freshness.
Don’t buy any food after the expiration date. Any food already in your home that is past the use by or expiration dates should be thrown away unless it was frozen prior to this date.
Although some perishable foods like packaged salads and vegetables may display a sell by or best used by date, this isn’t true for bulk foods and fresh produce. In addition, once a package of food has been opened, the label date may no longer apply. For foods that don’t display a date or those that have already been opened, you can refer to NSF’s food storage article for recommended safety and spoilage guidelines.