What does that date on your can of beans really mean?

 
By Laura Mize • Published: December 6th, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat
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How much food does your family waste? A lot, if you dispose of food and drinks once they pass the so-called “expiration date.”

That’s what a new study by the National Resource Defense Council and Harvard Law School indicates. The study analyzed the practices companies use to date foods and the various government regulations on the topic.

What they found was a lack of consistency across states and between companies. Without a clear understanding of the dates printed on food packages, many people throw away food they think is expired. Although people are just being cautious to avoid food poisoning, experts say most of the food tossed out is actually fine.

The National Resource Defense Council’s report says $165 billion dollars in food goes to waste in the United States each year. The group estimates a family of four throws away between $275 and $455 dollars of unspoiled food each year.

So, what do those dates printed on food packages mean? They can mean a number of things. It could be the date the manufacturer wants grocers to stop selling that particular item. Or it might be the manufacturer’s recommended date for eating the food to ensure maximum quality. But, they usually don’t mean the food will be unsafe or bad by that date.

However, consumers often don’t know the meaning behind the dates because there is no national system to standardize this kind of labeling.

The groups recommend that the federal government regulate food expiration labeling. They advocate, for example, that “sell by” dates should not be readable by consumers to avoid confusion. They also encourage producers to put “freeze by” dates on packages. This, they say, may help people safely hold onto food longer, reducing waste.

For the sake of Americans’ tight budgets and the hungry among us, that’s a worthy goal.