SPECIAL REPORT: Expiration Exasperation

    One of the labels groups from the consumer packaged goods industry are pushing for manufacturers to use. They say reducing the number to just two will reduce consumer confusion.

    Have you ever opened your fridge only to find an item you forgot about that’s now out of date? What do you do?

    For Center Point Foods shopper James Wood, a look is all it takes.

    “If it looks good, you eat it,” he says. “If it looks moldy, you don’t eat it.”

    Chance Feuerhelm goes by time.

    “Eh, if it’s within a week or so, I’ll eat it,” he says. “If it’s any later than that, I usually throw it away.”

    Samantha Krause uses the age-old test: “Color, the smell.”

    The old sniff test may hold more value than you thought. In fact, it may be more scientific than the date on your food.

    “I think I’ve always known in the back of my mind that they’re just an approximation,” Krause says. “They’re not totally exact.”

    There are more than ten different labels you may find on your food. Sell by, use by, expires on, best before, and best if used by are all common examples. And they’re all pretty arbitrary.

    “As if a label could somehow magically make the food in the container bad,” says Byron Brehm-Stecher, an associate professor of food science at Iowa State University. “Doesn’t really work that way.”

    Brehm-Stecher says it’s up to manufacturers to decide how long food lasts and up to them to decide what labeling goes on the package.

    “Even products within a certain category are gonna be potentially different among manufacturers,” he says.

    Manufacturers base this expiration estimate on how long the food will be on the shelf, what temperature it should be stored at, and how the food is made and packaged. That leaves a lot to chance. Your food could actually go bad before it even gets to your home.

    Possibly more surprising for most shoppers: manufacturers don't have to list anything. Other than baby formula, expiration dates aren’t legally required on products.

    For shoppers at Center Point Foods, expiration dates only play a slight role in what they’re buying and sometimes less in what they throw away.

    “Like if it’s a canned fruit or something like that, as long as the cans not bulged or something, if it goes past the expiration date, that’s fine,” Wood says.

    They’re in the minority.

    A July 2017 study found 60% of Americans discuss the meaning of the dates on their food at home. In 40% of cases, the discussion dissolved into an argument.

    It’s a problem that hasn't gotten by the consumer packaged goods industry.

    In February 2017 two major industry groups, the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), brought together 25 consumer packaged goods and grocery retailers.

    Their goal was to take those 10-plus labels and standardize them to just two: best if used by — meaning a product may taste or perform differently but still be consumed, and use by — meaning a product will no longer be good after.

    “It’s a big deal for a small store like us,” Center Point Foods co-owner Brian Rhinehart says.

    He has high standards for their products and hates to toss things just because the date has passed. The store even donates expired produce to local farmers to feed to their animals.

    Expiration dates play a big role in the planning and purchasing of product.

    “If we order too much of it, then it’s a concern about marking down or even throwing away product that we can sell before it expires,” Rhinehart says.

    Whether it’s expired in the store or at home, Americans toss out about a third of the nation’s food supply says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s like trashing $161 billion every year.

    “Sometimes we might think of food that we throw out as not being a big problem because, you know, ‘I earned the money, I paid for it and it’s up to me to decide what I do with it,’” Brehm-Stecher says.

    Several consumer studies found 80 to 90% of Americans discard food too early, even if the food isn’t visibly spoiled, because they don’t understand expiration dates.

    “It’s pretty sad that a lot of food goes to waste just because of an expiration date,” Samantha Krause says. “Especially when it’s just one or two days after.”

    “It’s a major, major problem," Brehm-Stecher adds.

    It's not just wasted food. He explains that when you toss food, you’re also throwing away manpower, fuel, water, and other resources used to produce the item now sitting in the trash.

    “A dozen eggs requires over 600 gallons of water to produce,” he says. “That’s 50-something gallons per egg.”

    The good news is the latest attempt at curbing food waste with clearer expiration definitions seems to be working.

    As of December, the GMA reports 87% of products now carry one of the two easily-understood labels. They hope to reach 100% of voluntary adoption by 2020.

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