Food expiration dates don’t say much about “safety.” How to Know What’s Too Old to Eat


FLorida’s listeria outbreak has so far resulted in at least one death, 22 hospitalizations and one ice cream recall since January. Humans contract listeria, or listeriosis, infections by eating soil-contaminated food, undercooked meat, or raw or unpasteurized dairy products. Listeria can cause seizures, coma, miscarriage, and birth defects. And it’s the third leading cause of death from food poisoning in the United States.

Avoiding invisible food hazards is why people often check dates on food packaging. And printed with the month and year is often one of the dizzying phrases: “best before”, “use before”, “best if used before”, “best if used before”, “guaranteed freshness until”, “freeze before”. and even a “born on” label applied to some beers.

People think of them as best before dates, or the date a food should go in the trash. But dates have little to do with when foods expire or become less safe to eat. I’m a microbiologist and public health researcher, and I’ve used molecular epidemiology to study the spread of bacteria in food. A more scientifically-based product dating system could make it easier for people to differentiate foods they can eat safely from those that could be unsafe.

Costly confusion

The United States Department of Agriculture reports that in 2020, the average American household spent 12% of their income on food. But a lot of food is just thrown away, despite being perfectly safe to eat. The USDA Center for Economic Research reports that nearly 31% of all available food is never eaten. Historically high food prices make the problem of waste all the more alarming.

The current food labeling system may be the source of much of the waste. The FDA reports that consumer confusion around product date labels is likely responsible for about 20% of food wasted at home, costing an estimated US$161 billion a year.

It makes sense to believe that date labels are there for safety reasons, since the federal government enforces rules for including nutrition and ingredient information on food labels. Passed in 1938 and continually amended since, the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act requires food labels to tell consumers about the nutritional value and ingredients of packaged foods, including the amount of salt, sugar and sugar. fat they contain.

The dates on these food packages, however, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Rather, they come from food producers. And they may not be based on the science of food safety.

For example, a food producer may survey consumers in a focus group to choose a best-before date six months after the product is made, because 60% of focus group members no longer like the taste. Small manufacturers of a similar food could play copycat and put the same date on their product.

More interpretations

An industry group, the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association, suggests that its members mark foods as “best if used by” to indicate how long foods are safe to eat, and “use by” to indicate when foods are safe to eat. become dangerous. But the use of these more nuanced marks is voluntary. And while the recommendation is driven by a desire to reduce food waste, it’s not yet clear if this recommended change has had an impact.

A joint study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resources Defense Council recommends eliminating dates intended for consumers, citing potential confusion and waste. Instead, the research suggests that manufacturers and distributors use “production” or “packaging” dates, as well as “before sale” dates, aimed at supermarkets and other retailers. The dates would tell retailers how long a product will remain of high quality.

The FDA considers certain products “potentially hazardous foods” if they have characteristics that allow microbes to thrive, such as moisture and an abundance of nutrients that feed microbes. These foods include chicken, milk, and sliced ​​tomatoes, all of which have been linked to serious foodborne outbreaks. But there is currently no difference between the date labeling used on these foods and that used on more stable foods.

Scientific formula

Infant formula is the only food product whose expiry date is both government regulated and scientifically determined. It is regularly tested in the laboratory for contamination. But infant formulas also undergo nutritional testing to determine how long it takes for nutrients, especially protein, to break down. To prevent malnutrition in babies, the use-by date on formula indicates when it is no longer nutritious.

Nutrients in food are relatively easy to measure. The FDA already does this regularly. The agency issues warnings to food producers when the nutrient content listed on their labels does not match what the FDA lab finds.

Microbial studies, like those that food safety researchers are working on, are also a science-based approach to meaningful date labeling on foods. In our lab, a microbial study may involve letting a perishable food spoil and measuring the amount of bacteria growing on it over time. Scientists also perform another type of microbial study by observing how long it takes microbes like listeria to reach dangerous levels after they intentionally add the microbes to food to observe what they do, noting details like that the growth of the amount of bacteria over time and [when there’s enough to cause illness].

Single consumers

Determining the shelf life of foods with scientific data on their nutrition and safety could significantly reduce waste and save money as foods become more expensive.

But without a uniform food dating system, consumers might trust their eyes and noses, deciding to throw out the fuzzy bread, the green cheese or the smelly bag of salad. People might also pay special attention to dates in more perishable foods, like deli meats, in which germs grow easily. They can also find advice on

Jill Roberts, Associate Professor of Global Health, University of South Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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