According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, American consumers waste an average of 238 pounds of food every year, or 21 percent of the food they buy, costing an estimated $1,800 per year for each person. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash, creating 22 percent of discarded municipal solid waste. The wasted food decays and produces methane gas.
Knowing what label dates mean can reduce food waste, as many consumers throw food out when the date stamped on the package arrives. Most dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by federal law. The exception is infant formula and baby food that require a “use by” date for quality and nutrient retention, which must be adhered to for infant health.
Most label dates are meant for food quality. There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels. Common practices include:
Milk has a “sell by” date stamped on every carton. It’s best to purchase it before this date. If it remains refrigerated at 40 degrees or colder, it should remain fresh up to 7 days beyond the “sell-by” date. If milk smells bad, it’s time to throw it out.
Yogurt has a “sell by” or “best if used by” date for highest quality. If refrigerated correctly, it can be expected to be of good quality 10 days beyond this date.
Eggs usually have a “sell by” date on their carton. If refrigerated, they have a very long shelf life. They are expected to maintain decent quality for 3 to 5 weeks beyond the “sell by” date.
For meat, there are a couple of possible date markings:
“Sell by” date tells the retailer how long to display the product for sale.
“Use by” date is the last date recommended for meat while at peak quality. Freeze meat and poultry if unable to prepare by the “use by” date.
Peanut butter, powdered milk and some canned foods have a “best if used by” or “use by” date on the label. While the product may decline in flavor and quality, the food should be safe after this date.
High-acid canned goods such as tomatoes, fruits and fruit juice can be stored for 12 to 18 months.
Low-acid canned goods such as canned meats, poultry, fish and vegetables will keep for 2 to 5 years, as long as the cans are in good condition and have been stored in a cool place.
Packing codes appear as a series of letters and/or numbers which might refer to the date or time of manufacture. They are used in case of a recall.
Food waste can also be reduced by surveying what’s on-hand that needs to be eaten before making a menu plan. Then, grocery shop with a full stomach and grocery list to reduce impulse buying.
Margie Mansure, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and extension agent with NC Cooperative Extension. She offers personalized classes to improve the health of citizens in Watauga County through worksites, schools and community groups. For questions, contact email@example.com or call (828) 264-3061.