Dear Wasted Food Dude–Date Label Hell(p)

Here’s the latest installment of my food waste advice column, Dear Wasted Food Dude. The column will run on BioCycle‘s website and in BioCycle Food Recycling News, their fledgling e-bulletin that all “wasted foodies” should sign up for pronto! I will also crosspost the columns here on Wasted Food.

One thing any advice column needs inquiries. That means you need to write in with any food-waste-related question/issue/conundrum. I’m not picky–the query can be big or small, true or false, named or anonymous. Send your stuff to wastedfood {at} gmail or Tweet to @wastedfood. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to do some creative inventing that may or may not include Seinfeld scenarios. Such as…

Dear Wasted Food Dude,
I’m so confused about expiration dates. There are a million different terms and figuring out what they mean is wicked hard. Is there really a difference between any of the terms? Which ones carry the most weight? My husband scoffs at all expiration dates. I really swear he looks forward to eating food after its date. I’m worried he is going to get sick and I’ve started to secretly throw away certain foods so he doesn’t devour them.  Who’s in the right here?


Julie R, Concord, NH

Hi Julie. I hate to quibble over semantics — oh, wait, no I don’t — but let’s stop saying ‘expiration dates.’ Because that’s not what they are. Food doesn’t expire. It doesn’t die at midnight on the date stamped on its package. Instead, it slowly passes from optimal to inedible. And that date stamped on the package — no matter what words precede it — tends to fall much closer to edible.

Second quibble — compost that food instead of throwing it out. I’m sure that’s what you meant when you wrote ‘throw away.’ Organic waste simply does not belong in landfills. If you have any questions there, pick up a copy of BioCycle.

Now, let’s get to the matter at hand: Date labels speak to quality, not food safety.* Manufacturers put that date on their products to indicate when we should eat them before the texture or taste start to wane. And they do so voluntarily — the only item required by federal law to have a date is infant formula. Most foods usually last beyond the date label. But they can also go bad before that date. That’s why it’s best to rely on your senses — of smell, sight and taste.

As you say, the variety of terminology is a major problem here. There are just so many different terms, and I won’t even dignify them by writing their names. All you really need to know is that they all speak to quality and taste. To cut through the clutter, there is now a bill circulating through Washington, D.C. (see “Food Date Labeling Act” below), aimed at standardizing the terminology. But the phrase that really cuts through the noise and that I wish was the norm comes from the Ad Council’s Save The Food public service campaign: “Best If Used.” Given our wasteful ways, we’d be better served by a nudge to actually eat our food than a quality date that prompts many to send it directly to the compost pile.

In each household there’s usually one Date Label Doubter and one Spoiled Food Fretter. You’re both playing your roles perfectly. Who’s in the right? I would never interfere in this kind of marital dispute, but I will say that it’s usually bad to be throwing food away. Also, the Date Label Doubter is totally in the right.

If you want to learn more about this vexing topic, watch this efficient, 5-minute film on the topic called Expired. If you want to become an instant expert, read The Dating Game. And if you want to get a very funny take on the subject, watch this Seinfeld bit on how milk producers really determine the date label.

All the Best (By),

*By reading this article, you consent to not sue this Dude if you get sick from eating something past its date. Seriously, dude — trust your senses.

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