Food Label Literacy: What do expiration labels mean?
Food labels are important. So then why do they feel like an obscure language that needs to be decoded and deciphered? It's not uncommon practice to throw away loaves of bread and bags of apples way past when we should or much earlier than necessary just so we can avoid asking the embarrassing question: Can I eat this?
We talked to NSF International, a global public health and safety organization that tests and certifies a wide range of food, water and consumer products, to get some answers about expiration labels.
But first, some statistics from NSF:
According to them, people are most likely to look for visual cues like changes in food color or texture before throwing it away, posing a risk of exposing foodborne pathogens such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli.
About 47 percent of consumers wait to throw out refrigerated foods until the food gets moldy based on those cues, while 17 percent are most likely to discard when items begin to smell.
In terms of the freezer, two in five consumers wait for food to appear freezer burned or covered in ice, while 22 percent simply throw the frozen items away after three months or less. 14 percent indicate they never discard frozen food.
What exactly does “best used by”, “sell by” and “expiration date” mean?
- Best-used-by dates are not a safety date but rather reference on how long an unopened food product will remain at peak quality and freshness. Food is generally still safe to consume after this date has passed, assuming it was properly stored from the date of purchase. (51 percent of consumers throw food away at this date, and 47 percent keep it.)
- Sell-by dates are intended to help manufacturers and stores determine how long a product should be available for sale. Consumers should not purchase foods after the sell by date has passed. (61 percent don’t throw their food away based on this date.)
- Expiration and use-by dates are safety dates; if you can’t use a food item before this date, you should either freeze the unused portion or throw it away. Consumers should not purchase any foods past these dates. (72 percent of people throw their food away based on this date.)
Are there better ways on knowing if something has gone bad beyond the "age-old" way of smelling and looking for mold?
NSF: Although some foods will change appearance or develop an odor when they start to spoil, this is not true for all foods. This is why it's important to check the product label for a use-by or expiration date before purchasing. But it doesn't stop there as you also need to make sure all of the foods that you purchase are properly stored from the time that you purchase them. In most cases, unopened foods will retain their quality longer than foods that are stored in opened containers. It's also a good idea to date foods when you first purchase them and try to use them up within the timeframes outlined in our food storage charts.
What greater lesson can be taken from your research? How can everyday readers apply it to their lives?
NSF: Confusion about product labeling can lead to people making the wrong choices when it comes to purchasing and storing foods. While our survey revealed that those over age 55 are most likely to hold on to food past any date on the label, including expiration dates, individuals under 34 are more likely to throw out foods quickly regardless of the date type posted on the label. This type of confusion is leading some people to keep food too long, which can potentially cause health issues while leading others to throw food away prematurely. Understanding and paying attention to the difference between food labeling dates not only will help protect you and your family but can help the bottom line of your weekly food budget as well.
How can our readers get better educated on food safety? Any recommendations for resources to feel more food secure?
NSF: The NSF website contains many resources to help consumers eat safer both at home as well as while traveling. All of these resources can be accessed in the Health & Safety Tips section of our website at http://www.nsf.org/consumer-resources/health-and-safety-tips/. Consumers can also send questions to the NSF consumer affairs office at email@example.com.