The Joy and Wisdom of Eating Food Past the Expiration Date

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OK, maybe “joy” is overstating things a bit. Still, USDA-funded researchers say that U.S. households throw away 14% of their food purchases, and that estimate seems conservative: Another study claims that roughly 25% of food ($100 billion annually) is bought, then never eaten and thrown out by American consumers. Much of this food is tossed unwisely: In a survey, more than three-quarters of Americans mistakenly thought they would get sick by eating foods that were passed the expiration date but were actually perfectly safe.

Under what circumstances is it OK to eat foods beyond their expiration date? What does the expiration date even mean? What happens in a household where one spouse is a diligent, by-the-book food tosser and the other takes the more lax, smells-OK-to-me approach?

A Boston Globe story explores these and other topics. Prominently featured in the story is an interesting website that’s new to me: ShelfLifeAdvice. The site, with the help of Harris Interactive, conducted the survey revealing that 76% of consumers mistakenly believe certain foods are unsafe past the dates printed on the packaging. Eggs, for example, have a “sell-by” date, and many consumers perceive this as the date by which the eggs must be consumed. In fact, if eggs are stored properly in a refrigerator, they’ll be fine for eating three to five weeks beyond that date.

In the survey, 61% of people were wrong about their understanding of the dates printed on milk cartons. The date on the carton, in fact, is not the last day on which milk can be consumed safely. Here’s the real deal:

“Generally, milk has no ‘off flavor’ up to five days after the printed date passes. When off flavors can be detected, the off flavors are produced by [harmless] bacteria, so even this milk could be consumed without making one sick,” said Clair Hicks, Ph.D, professor of food science at the University of Kentucky and member of the Board of Advisors.

What’s a little gag reflex, right?

While I’m not so sure I’ll be drinking milk with an “off” flavor anytime soon, it’s good to hear that there’s no need to freak out and run to the ER upon realizing the milk I just poured into my kid’s cereal was a day or two past the expiration date.

Or is that “sell-by” date? “Use-by” date? What are the differences with these terms? Are there differences? No wonder people are so confused and wind up just throwing stuff away.

A recent post at ShelfLifeAdvice attempts at explaining what these terms mean, clarifying, for example:

Food product dating is about quality, NOT safety. “Best if used by” means exactly that. It’s the last date the item will be at its peak quality in terms of taste, texture, color, scent and/or nutritional value, according to its manufacturer. “Use by” is not a warning of impending doom if the product is not banished to the garbage can immediately.

Now, the knowledge that you are not headed toward impending doom should bring you some peace of mind, if not outright joy.

Don’t Throw That Away! Does the Five-Second Rule Have Some Validity?