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Jill Roberts

FDA Compliance

Food Expiration Dates Don’t Have Much Science Behind Them

Another way to know what’s too old to eat

Published: Tuesday, August 9, 2022 - 12:02

Florida’s outbreak of listeria has so far led to at least one death, 22 hospitalizations, and an ice cream recall since January 2022. Humans get sick with listeria infections, called listeriosis, from eating soil-contaminated food, undercooked meat, or dairy products that are raw or unpasteurized. Listeria can cause convulsions, coma, miscarriage, and birth defects. It’s the third leading cause of food poisoning deaths in the United States.

Avoiding unseen food hazards is the reason people often check the dates on food packaging. Printed with the month and year is often one of a dizzying array of phrases: “best by,” “use by,” “best if used before,” “best if used by,” “guaranteed fresh until,” “freeze by,” and even a “born on” label applied to some beer.

People think of these as expiration dates, or the date at which a food should go in the trash. But the dates have little to do with when food expires or becomes less safe to eat. I’m a microbiologist and public health researcher, and I have used molecular epidemiology to study the spread of bacteria in food. A more science-based product-dating system could make it easier for people to differentiate foods they can safely eat from those that could be hazardous.

Costly confusion

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reports that in 2020 the average American household spent 12 percent of its income on food. But a lot of food is simply thrown away, despite being perfectly safe to eat. The USDA Economic Research Center reports that nearly 31 percent of all available food is never consumed. Historically, high food prices make the problem of waste seem all the more alarming.

The current food-labeling system could be to blame for much of the waste. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that consumer confusion around product dating labels is likely responsible for about 20 percent of the food wasted in the home, costing an estimated $161 billion per year.

It’s logical to believe that date labels are there for safety reasons, since the federal government enforces rules including nutrition and ingredient information on food labels. Passed in 1938 and continuously modified since, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act requires that food labels inform consumers of nutrition and ingredients in packaged food, including the amount of salt, sugar, and fat it contains.

The dates on those food packages, however, aren’t regulated by the FDA. Rather, they come from food producers. And they may not be based on food safety science.

For example, a food producer may survey consumers in a focus group to pick a “use by” date that is six months after the product was produced because 60 percent of the focus group no longer liked the taste. Smaller manufacturers of a similar food might play copycat and put the same date on their product.

More interpretations

One industry group, the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association, suggests that its members mark food “best if used by” to indicate how long the food is safe to eat, and “use by” to indicate when food becomes unsafe. But using these more nuanced marks is voluntary. Although the recommendation is motivated by a desire to cut down on food waste, it’s not yet clear if this recommended change has had any effect.

A joint study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resources Defense Council recommends eliminating dates aimed at consumers, citing potential confusion and waste. Instead, the research suggests manufacturers and distributors use “production” or “pack” dates, along with “sell by” dates aimed at supermarkets and other retailers. The dates would indicate to retailers the amount of time a product will remain at high quality.

The FDA considers some products “potentially hazardous foods” if they have characteristics such as moisture and an abundance of nutrients that feed microbes and allow them to flourish. These foods include chicken, milk, and sliced tomatoes, all of which have been linked to serious foodborne outbreaks. But there’s currently no difference between the date labeling used on these foods and that used on more stable food items.

Scientific formula

Infant formula is the only food product with a “use by” date that is both government-regulated and scientifically determined. It is routinely lab tested for contamination. But infant formula also undergoes nutrition tests to determine how long it take the nutrients—particularly protein—to break down. To prevent malnutrition in babies, the “use by” date on baby formula indicates when it’s no longer nutritious.

Nutrients in foods are relatively easy to measure. The FDA already does this regularly. The agency issues warnings to food producers when the nutrient contents listed on their labels don’t match what the FDA’s lab finds.

Microbial studies, like the ones we food safety researchers work on, are also a scientific approach to meaningful date labeling on foods. In our lab, a microbial study might involve leaving a perishable food out to spoil and measuring how much bacteria grows in it over time. Scientists also do another kind of microbial study by watching how long it takes microbes like listeria to grow to dangerous levels after intentionally adding the microbes to food and noting such details as growth in the amount of bacteria over time, and when there’s enough to cause illness.

Consumers on their own

Determining the shelf life of food with scientific data on both its nutrition and its safety could drastically decrease waste and save money as food gets more expensive.

But in the absence of a uniform food-dating system, consumers could rely on their eyes and noses, deciding to discard the fuzzy bread, green cheese, or off-smelling bag of salad. People also might pay close attention to the dates for more perishable foods, such as cold cuts, in which microbes grow easily. They can also find guidance at FoodSafety.gov.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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About The Author

Jill Roberts’s picture

Jill Roberts

Jill Roberts is an associate professor of global health at the University of South Florida.

Comments

food dating system

The dating system and use by, sell by, born on, etc. is perplexing to me.  Standardization would be so helpful.  I recently read an article from the USDA regarding shelf life of canned goods that can be way beyond the expiration date.  A scientific approach would be super helpful to determine shelf life.  No one wants to throw away food that is still good or consume food or feed it to others that is past it's sell by date that may be bad.  It's a catch 22.  Thank you so much for the article! I hope this leads us to a new food dating system that is clear.  

Cold refrigerator

It's nice to see an article on the topic of food expiration dates written by an actual expert on the subject.  I have a few friends who refuse to touch anything after the expiration date and will pass this article on to a few of them!  My home refrigerator is set at 33 - 34 F and rarely have food spoil even weeks after the "use by/best by" date which a few exception like lettuce or uncooked meats.  I've eaten hummus and feta cheese (that hadn't yet been opened) months after the "date" that was still fresh and flavorful.