Food Expiration Labels: What Do They Really Mean?

By: Katie Stukey Email
By: Katie Stukey Email
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A proposal to standardize food expiration labels nationwide will be unveiled Wednesday morning. Such a plan could save us money and cut down on food waste.

Do you ever look at the labels on items in your fridge and wonder what they could possibly mean? Some seem clear while others almost look like another language. Does the "use-by" date really mean throw out date? And how long should we keep food after the "sell-by" suggestion?

We have sell-by, use-by, enjoy-by and expiration dates and some foods come with codes. Eggs for instance must list a packing date, but it's written in terms of the Julian calendar. That's how many days we are into the year. January 1st would be one on the Julian calendar. Wednesday is 261. Eggs should last four to five weeks after their packing date so from there you have to do the math to figure out how long your eggs should last. Ideally, the eggs will be gone before we have to worry, but it's always nice to be able to stock up.

Yogurt can last up to three weeks past the printed date. It's not quite as long for Greek or reduced fat yogurt. Dry cereal, after it's opened, can last up to six months after the printed date. If you open a package of bacon, it should last about a week after the date listed. Milk should last five to seven days after the sell-by date.

Currently, the FDA doesn't require dates to be listed on most food before they hit store shelves. The problem is there are very few rules in place governing the length of time between when a food can be produced and the date placed on the package and all this confusion is costing us big time.

The Natural Resources Defense Council says 40 percent of food prepared for consumption in the U.S. goes uneaten because we're throwing away most food too soon, about 20 pounds per person every month.

A Harvard study to be released Wednesday tries to put a stop to this trend by proposing a new system to standardize food expiration dates, but the approach may not be popular among producers.

A Boston Globe report says 75 percent of us think food is "unsafe" after the expiration date so straight to the trash it often goes, contributing to a massively expensive problem. It's estimated a family of four throws away some $2,000 worth of food every year. That's more than $100 billion as a country. One columnist goes so far as to call "sell-by" or "use-by" dates marketing malarkey.

Setting earlier sell-by dates pays if you're a producer. The faster we throw away what we believe to be outdated food, the faster we run back to the store to buy more. So how much of a difference could it make to standardize expiration dates? has great hints for using up food right before it expires.

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