Food Expiration Dates May Become A Thing Of The Past

Grocery shopping always tests our decision-making skills, and there's one factor that you probably rely on more than anything when making your selections: the expiration date. As you consider your choices, particularly meat, dairy, and produce, it's customary to check the best-by date and contemplate whether you're going to use this product in time or not. It's even more consequential when you look through your fridge and toss out all the expired things. 

Abiding by expiration dates feels like an obvious way to protect your health, but there's a problem here. Those best-by dates aren't accurate at all, and they lead us to waste a lot of food that was perfectly safe to eat. Myths about expiration dates have been repeated so often that few of us even think to question them, but perspectives are gradually starting to change. Major grocery chains are abandoning expiration dates, and the trend could very well spread to a store near you if it hasn't already.

Expiration dates aren't really accurate

Expiration dates are comforting because they make judging the safety of your food easy. They also make it faulty because our system of labeling is profoundly flawed. The USDA admits that there are no national standards for determining expiration dates. Federal law doesn't even require them except in the case of baby formula. There are some state regulations, which are highly inconsistent, and in most cases, it's the food producers who determine what date to stamp on their products.

This is problematic because food and beverage companies have self-centric motivations here. Their main concern is protecting themselves from consumer lawsuits or plain bad press, so they're overly cautious in their estimations. The practice of adding expiration dates on products took off in the 1970s for this very reason, as food manufacturers found it resulted in fewer customer complaints.

Another key factor is there is no way to accurately determine the exact date when foods and beverages pass their prime, so every expiration date you see was decided by total guesswork. A Harvard study found that best-by dates are consistently misleading, causing consumers to think their food has gone bad well before it actually does. This is where the real problem lies.

Ditching expiration dates could reduce food waste

Food waste is one of the most severe issues affecting our world. The FDA estimates that consumer uncertainty about expiration dates is responsible for roughly 20% of all wasted food. Food waste is also a major factor in climate change. Large amounts of wasted food end up in landfills, making food waste responsible for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the financial and environmental consequences of farming and manufacturing food that ultimately ends up in the trash.

The FDA is advocating for national standards regarding expiration date labels, but that has yet to occur. Meanwhile, some big players in the food industry are taking a more radical approach: eliminating expiration labels entirely. In 2022, Sainsbury's, the largest grocery chain in the United Kingdom, announced that it would cease placing expiration warnings on fresh produce. Other chains, including Waitrose and M&S, followed suit.

You're probably wondering how you can protect yourself from the consequences of eating rotten food if there is no label to advise you. Well, you'll need your senses to do that. Visible mold is the most obvious red flag, and you should look out for changes in the food's texture. Sometimes, you need more than the eye test. Smell is another key indicator, with sour and rancid odors being clear signs of spoilage. Touch can tell you if the surface of a food is slimy. That may sound unpleasant, but a good hand scrubbing will do away with any nastiness.