Vindication at last! Food that has reached the “use by” date on the label is not necessarily spoiled food.
I have, for some time, been a voice howling in the wilderness about “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” labels on food. It is insanity, I contend, to assume that just because a food item has reached the date on the label, it suddenly has become inedible.
Say you have a package of hot dogs that has a label saying, “use by 10-17-13.” Does that mean you can safely eat one of those hot dogs until the clock strikes midnight on Oct. 17, that as the twelfth chime starts to fade, the hot dog will spoil before your eyes?
Of course not! If the hotdog was OK at 11:59, it still will be OK at 12:01 – and probably for another few weeks after that if kept in the refrigerator.
The fanatics who throw out food are wasteful paranoiacs. Use your nose, I tell them. It will tell you more about the freshness of your food than the “use by” label.
But they don’t listen. If the label says it's out of date, it goes into the trash.
Now, however, I have the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic to back me up. According to a study conducted by those groups, 90 percent of Americans prematurely discard edibles because they have misinterpreted the dates stamped on the products.
The operative word is “misinterpreted.” The researchers tell us that the dates on food packages are not designed to educate consumers; they’re a convenience for retailers, helping them manage their inventory.
The date encourages stores to sell a product within a specific time frame so that the item still has a shelf life once it's purchased. In other words, it’s perfectly safe to eat well after the date on the package.
I have long suspected that, in addition to aiding retailers, “sell by” dates are part of a conspiracy to get people to toss food so they will have to buy more food. And I’m still not entirely convinced that isn’t true.
But conspiracy or not, it has to stop. The waste along every step of the food chain is colossal, enormously expensive and entirely unnecessary.
The NRDC estimates that people throw out as much as 40 percent of the nation’s food supply each year, totaling $165 billion in losses, including the loss of natural resources used in producing the food. Food waste is the largest portion of solid trash in landfills, adding considerably to the cost of waste management.
Throwing out food prematurely because of misinterpreted labels costs the average American family of four as much as $455 a year in squandered food. Think of how many hungry people that wasted food would nourish.
We can’t really blame consumers or even food producers and retailers for the waste. But we can blame a labeling system that encourages stupid wastefulness.
The NRDC and Harvard study recommends a standardized system, one, perhaps, that makes “sell by” dates visible only to the retailer. The study also suggests “smart” packaging that actually pinpoints when food spoils.
Common sense also might go a long way in reducing waste. You don’t need special equipment to tell you when milk has spoiled. Smell it or, if in doubt, taste it. It won’t kill you.
Granted, not all food advertises the fact that it might contain harmful pathogens. But again, common sense should rule. If the tuna salad has been sitting in a bowl in the refrigerator for a month, don’t take a chance on it.
But anything sealed will last a long time. Anything frozen will last for months. And anything in a can will last practically forever.
Try a smarter approach to food with an expired “use by” label. Try eating it.
James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by e-mail, at email@example.com.