On Food Waste, and the So-Called “Expiration Dates” of Food


For some interesting information take a look at this article which reads, in part, “[D]espite what the labels may suggest, the food is safe. The date printed on packaging clues consumers into when the product is at its best, peak flavor … The flavor or quality may start to degrade over time, but food safety isn’t an issue.” — Dave

There are many causes of food waste. “Expiration dates” on food and food products are probably one of the more serious culprits. If you subscribe to these things, you need to take another look at what’s really going on.

One of the local papers here reprints restaurant inspections via the county Health Department. Entries like this have a tendency to catch my eye:

Refrigerated ready-to-eat food held refrigerated for more than 24 hours was not properly date marked. Items in the cooler not date marked. To prevent food borne illness, refrigerated, ready-to-eat food held at a temperature of 41 degrees or below for more than 24 hours should be clearly marked at the time of preparation or the time the original container is opened to indicate the date or day that is a maximum of seven days by which the food should be consumed, sold, or discarded. The day the food is prepared or opened is day one.

Of course, the embellishment of the findings from two sentences into a whole paragraph is always completely ridiculous. But then again, so is the concept of expiration dates in regards to food.

Back in May of 2015 during a ServSafe course, before looking at the supplied book for the course, my classmates and I discussed the concept mentioned in this inspection at length. Some admitted to putting the preparation date on labels as a matter of habit. But we decided that was incorrect, as someone might look at that date the following day, assume it was the day the item was supposed to be pitched, and do just that.

It turned out the 6th edition of the ServSafe Manager course guide is kinda specific on this subject, on page 5.9:

Ready-to-eat TCS [time and temperature control for safety] food can be stored for only seven days if it is held at 41F or lower. The count begins on the day that the food was prepared or a commercial container was opened. For example, a food handler that prepared and stored potato salad on October 1 would write a discard date of October 7 on the label.

Ignoring the fact that “41F and lower” in the above paragraph also includes temperatures that freeze the food, which makes the dates useless, there are also the paragraphs that follow the above paragraph in the book:

Operations have a variety of systems for date marking. Some write the day or date the food was prepped on the label. Others write the use-by day or date on the label … Sometimes, commercially-processed food will have a use-by date that is less than seven days from the date the container is opened. In this case, the container should be marked with this use-by date as long as the date is based on food safety … When combining food in a dish with different use-by dates, the discard date of the dish should be based on the earliest prepared food.

Ok, I have a question, which would be … WTF???

Here’s a simple fact: Federal regulations require a “use-by” date on the product label of infant formula under FDA inspection. Baby formula is the ONLY food product the FDA says there must be dates on. The FDA site and regulations are full of phrases such as this one regarding eggs: “When a ‘sell-by’ date appears on a carton bearing the USDA grade shield, the code date may not exceed 45 days from the date of pack.” Notice that it’s a suggestion that the date be there. It’s not a requirement. There are countless other examples of this ambiguity within the FDA.

On all kinds of food products, both for commercial/restaurant use and consumer consumption, there are various types of dates. Supposedly, they go like this:

  • Sell By – Could be the shelf life on a store shelf, or even the shelf life after purchase. No one really knows.
  • Best By – A guess as to when the product will be at its peak quality. Doesn’t really apply to things like salt, which are already millenia-old products, but is still on some packaging.
  • Use By – Another phrase meaning “Best By”, which is another guess.
  • Freeze By – Again, it’s “Best By”, but for something that can be frozen.
  • Expires On – Eat it one day after this date, and we’re sure you’ll expire, too.

When you go grocery shopping I’m sure you’re probably checking some dates. You’re most likely actively looking for dates on containers in the dairy section and, in some cases, in the bread aisle. Without realizing it, when you look through various items for the ones you want in the produce section, you’re inadvertently “checking dates” as you either want what’s most fresh or, for something like bananas or tomatoes, something that will be ripe enough soon.

But do you check dates on canned goods, on bottles of dressings, jars of peanut butter, jams and jellies, or dry goods such as flour, sugar, cereals or cake mixes? Probably not. We have an expectation that these types of products will be good for some time, especially canned goods.

Some people assert canned goods would be fine after a nuclear blast, which I have serious doubts about.

Here’s a simple set of facts: There are far too many variables in product distribution for any date to be accurate. The transportation and storage chain for many food items has to be considered in the development of any kind of “expiration date”, which is completely impossible. Think about, say, a piece of fruit or a vegetable that’s picked in California and is on its way to Michigan. The pickers pick all day long and place them, sometimes tossing them, into a collection truck. We don’t know what the temperature or humidity might be there. The item then goes to a temp-and-humidity-controlled processing and packing plant where they’re cleaned, the good ones are selected by hand or machine, and they’re packed into their case size. They’re then loaded into other trucks, again with temp and humidity unknown (I’ve seen some recent trucks that are still simple boxes with extra refrigeration units tacked on) and transported to distribution centers for grocer or restaurant wholesalers. They’re then stored in well-regulated areas again, until another distribution takes place to wherever you purchase or consume them. In some cases, the truck is open for long periods at other restaurants before it’s off-loaded at the restaurant you eat at. If you buy them, how do you store them? In fact, what’s the temperature of your own refrigerator? You likely don’t even know.

There are a couple extremes to consider. When ordering from a supplier for a restaurant, you might get #2 breaking avocados for your Cobb salad. “Breaking” means they should be about two days out from ripening when you get them. But warehouse workers may be too busy to keep track of the ripeness of avocados under their care. So when a restaurant receives them, they might be immediately ripe and need to be used right away. They’re obviously not going to last seven days, regardless of how you mark them. That fresh guacamole you decided to make from them might end up too brown and sour to eat after two or three days.

One of the other extremes is the ubiquitous five gallon pail of hamburger dill pickle chips. No one, and I mean no one, dates those things. But very few places in a given area will go through one of these buckets in a week. I’ve seen them last at least a couple months, even when they’re not always resealed properly in the walk-in cooler. And even then, the pickle chips are perfectly edible, crisp, and safe.

Based on experience, I’d give pickled vegetables four or five months under good conditions, maybe even longer.

One of the other issues with that five-gallon pickle bucket, in some cases, is the unavailability of smaller packaging. Knowing our operation wouldn’t go through a whole bucket at the end of the season I asked the Sysco sales rep for a one-gallon version. He stopped in his tracks, looked at me oddly, and said “You know, I don’t think we have that.” And he was right. Unless I went to a store, a smaller package just wasn’t happening.

At the end of seasonal operation, what happens to those buckets still holding maybe three-and-a-half gallons of pickles? Some are actually pitched. Other operators might divvy up the remainder and sell them to employees to take home, or even relocate said bucket to properties that are still operating.

And finally, another contributor to waste is an aversion to eating leftovers. Really? Yes, teenagers, and yes many over the age of 18, largely hate eating leftovers, as do a lot of adults. So a lot of the food in our refrigerators, especially vegetables, head to the dump on a regular basis, only because too many people would rather eat something cooked right now.

We have to stop doing that.

Expiration dates on food is probably one of the largest contributors to the 40%, 133 billion pounds, or $165 billion dollars worth, of food wasted every year in the U.S. When deciding to throw food away, do yourself and the world a favor and don’t go by “expiration dates”. Use common sense. Eat the leftovers. Use your nose, your taste buds, and your brain. Transport and store your food properly. Listen to this guy. Just make good decisions.

Starting now.

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  1. Great article, Dave! I’ve been trying to tell people this for a long time! You’ve helped!

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