Label Dates Waste Food

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This past month I wrote several columns about food waste and ways you can help
reduce the amount of food that’s wasted in your home. As well as helping your pocket book this can help the whole planet. It’s not just the food that’s being thrown away that’s lost but it’s the land, the water, the labor, the energy and everything else that was put into the growing, processing, transporting, preparing and storing of that food that’s being wasted.

Those dates on food labels and the confusion over what they mean can lead to a lot of food waste. It’s estimated that 20% of food waste is cause by people throwing food away before they have to. At one point or another, we have all debated eating or throwing away a food product after the date on its label has passed.

Date labeling was a topic of a Homegrown video developed by NC State and NC
Cooperative Extension. Dr. Ben Chapman, Food Safety Specialist and Department Chair was the expert on this video. He helped sort out the confusion.

Chapman says that oftentimes you will see the phrases “Best if used by,” “Sell by” and “Use by” among others on packages. It can be confusing but these dates refer to product quality and flavor and are not expiration dates. You don’t need to immediately throw the food away once it’s past that date. He suggests that the next time you notice a food product whose label date has passed, check for signs of spoilage like color, consistency, or texture before deciding to consume or throw away. Most dates on food are for quality not safety and should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident. This is another small step you can take to reduce food waste at home!

These dates have been established by the food manufacturers. They don’t mean that you’ll get sick if you eat it after that date but that the food may not be of it’s best quality after that date. After all, the manufacturer wants you to eat the food when it is at its best quality. Quite often you see these as “best if consumed by” dates.

Tin can with expiration dateCanned and bottled products may not have dates on them. In this case, the
manufacturer has decided that the quality will last a long time, even years. It will
probably be eaten before the quality changes.

There are some foods that don’t have dates, but you should consider eating quickly
after purchase for safety. These are deli meats and deli salads. These foods can support the growth of a foodborne pathogen called Listeria monocytogenes. What’s unique about these bacteria is that they can grow at refrigerator temperatures. Once you open these deli foods you should eat them within seven days—because this is not enough time for the listeria to grow to a harmful level.

We should worry about the expiration dates on infant formula. This isn’t a safety issue, but a nutrition concern. Nutrients in infant formula can degrade over time. This becomes a problem when the baby is only drinking this formula. If it’s too old the infant may not be getting enough nutrition.

If you really want to hear the details, I suggest you seek out the video “What Do Food Expiration Dates Really Mean?” on the internet at Homegrown. These videos are produced quarterly by NC State Extension and feature research-based resources and guidance on gardening and home horticulture; the safe preparation and preservation of local foods; and discovering the importance of North Carolina agriculture in our everyday lives. You can sign up to get an announcement when new videos are available.

They also have an archive of past programs. If you’re interested in learning more about food labels, they a great series of videos that focus on the claims found on meat labels. These videos address topics such as “no added hormones”, “pasture raised” meat, “grass fed” meat and “no antibiotics”. Check them out to learn more!

Here are 3 other articles that you may be interested in as well:

Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center 910-253-2610 or by email at