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3 reasons why expiration dates are worthless

By Natalie Crofts | Posted - Oct 10th, 2013 @ 1:30pm

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Many religiously follow expiration dates printed on food to determine when it is time to toss products out, but that might not be such a good idea according to a new study claiming "sell by" dates are worthless.

Over reliance on an unregulated date labeling system has led to general confusion and massive food waste, according to a recent study from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Here are three reasons why they believe the current system needs an overhaul.

Inconsistent Wording

It's fair for consumers to be confused when they can find products labeled "sell by," "best if used by," "freeze by" and even "enjoy by" all in one trip to the grocery store. There is no set standard of definitions for the wording, and to make things even less clear, only some of the labels were intended for shoppers; others were meant for those stocking the store, the study says. The original purpose of dating the products was to indicate how fresh something was, not how long it would last, according to the study. That purpose has become more muddied over time.

Dating Systems Differ by State

The are no federal regulations for date labeling other than for infant formula, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. This means each state has been left to design their own regulations for the labels, if they have opted to make any. Utah is one of a handful of states without any regulations for date labels at all, according to the study. If there aren't any state regulations, then a company is free to come up with its own system. These policies can vary widely from producer to producer and make fair comparisons near impossible.

Leading Factor in Waste

Map of states requiring date labeling on at least some products. (Photo: Courtesy of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic)

People rely too much on the dates for determining when food will go bad, according to the study. Following the dates often leads to people throwing away food before it becomes inedible. This means everyone from the consumer to the manufacturer suffers because the waste squanders a natural resource, they said. But the study also found the dates were unreliable in both directions — a lot of times the food was still ok to eat even after the date, but sometimes the food could go bad before the label on the package. In order to avoid food borne illnesses, they recommended paying attention to signs like smell and temperature over the expiration date.

Recommendations to Fix the Problem

Hoping to fix the broken system, the researchers from Harvard made a few suggestions. They said they believe "sell by" dates, which are intended for retailers, should be made invisible to consumers in order to avoid confusion. Consistent language for the labels should be implemented and "freeze by" dates should be included so people can easily know how to make their product last longer, they said. With these types of regulations, they believe food waste in the United States would decrease.


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