“Should I Throw That Milk Away”, “May be Not”, says USDA
[Posted on: Thursday, December 22, 2016]
As much as 40% of food is thrown away every year by US consumers, retailers, restaurants, and other food operations, causing a loss of billions of dollars and negative environmental effects, according to USDA. An updated guidance from USDA explains the meaning of the various forms of food package dating and measures that must be taken before food is discarded. The guidance is careful to not use the commonly used term for such dates, namely, the “expiration date”. Although expiration dates are not required for most food packages, they are widely used by manufacturers to indicate the freshness and quality of food. However, many times the food in packaging beyond the posted date may still be of acceptable quality and be safe. Three kinds of dates are used on food labels: “Best if used by/before”, “Sell by” and “Use by”. Of these three, USDA recommends the first label as that best describes the manufacturer’s recommendation about date till which quality of the food will meet consumer expectations. USDA further recommends that so long as the food is handled properly and stored under the recommended conditions, consumers should not throw the food away solely based on the so-called “expiration date” on the package. Rather one should evaluate the food for any appearance of spoilage such as foul odor, discoloration, change in texture, or other signs, absent which the food should be used. Further food beyond the expiration date can be donated provided there are no noticeable changes in “wholesomeness”. That brings us to the elephant in the room, what are the practical implications of this guidance. Why have expiration dates if we are to disregard and deemphasize their importance? What about the legal implication for the manufacturer for consumption of food beyond its posted expiration date? The USDA guidance makes a recommendation but does not indicate enforcement. It should be looked at as education only. The final decision to use or discard rests with the consumer. It cannot be reasonably expected for retailers to display, sell or donate food beyond its posted “Best if used by” date and risk legal situations. Consumers on the other hand, can make a judgment call about each “expired” food package. Throwing away good food is never a good idea but it is definition of “good” that we need to contend with. USDA even has an app to help consumers decide what food to discard and when. Manufacturers and retailers would argue that their products is “good” only till the posted date, while consumers may chose to use the food beyond its posted date based on individual preferences. It’s a zero sum argument as it does not change the current food use. But with the holiday season coming to an end soon and our refrigerators filled with leftovers and gifts, it is a good time to remind consumers to reduce the food waste.