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How do you know when food expires?

Photo: Ayah's giant cupcake.
Photo and paperback book by Anne Hart. Diet Fads, Careers, & Controversies in Nutrition Journalism: How to Organize Term Papers, News, or Debates. Published December 4, 2005.
How do you know when certain foods expire? Packaging for produce can cause more waste than selling it whole. Sure, busy people expect the vegetables to be cleaned and packaged to save time. How do you know how long food is safe to eat? What do those expiration dates signal?


A new survey says the dates aren't related to the safety of the product. But how would someone know when the food spoils and isn't safe to eat after a certain number of days in the refrigerator? The latest report explained that a fifth of consumers throw away food based on package dates even though the "sell by" dates stamped on packages of food are meant to be used by retailers for inventory control.


Why so much food is discarded by when to sell dates


A new survey revealed that food products are discarded when sell by dates—almost none of which are regulated by law—are near. Different from use by or best by dates...sell by dates are designed to help the store with stocking and ensure freshness to consumers. One industry expert estimated supermarkets on average discard $2,300 per store worth of out-of-date food every day.


Almost all of this food may be still consumable but may have a limited shelf life left. In most states, it is not illegal to sell product after the sell by date, but stores don't do so out of concern that their image of carrying fresh products will be damaged. Most stores, in fact, pull items two to three days before the sell-by date, says the NRDC site.


How America is losing up to 40 percent of its food


The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a brief, "NRDC: Wasted - How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Fork to Landfill," that analyzes the latest case studies and government data on the causes and extent of food losses at every level of the U.S. food supply chain. It also provides examples and recommendations for reducing this waste.


The “best by” date is an indication of a product’s optimum freshness and quality, but many consumers mistakenly use it as the date for when food should be thrown out. You're supposed to sell the product by that date or return it to the manufacturer or toss it in the dumpster, depending upon what food your referring to. Also damaged packaging is one of the biggest causes of food waste in the USA. See the article, "Packaging shares blame for food waste." Damaged packaging, date coding and large portion sizes contribute to the reasons why so much food ends up in the landfill in the U.S., according to new research.


The new study from Harvard University Law School and the environmental group, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released the study on September 18, 2013. The problem is with how packages of food are labeled. The report noted that 90 percent of Americans throw away food still safe to eat due to the wrong type of wording on packages. Consumers may confuse the sell by date with the manufactured by date or the use by date gets confused with the best if used by date, depending upon various wording such as a date that says packed on.


Uneaten food dumped in landfills


When Americans throw away 40 percent of food in the U.S., it becomes the equivalent of $165 billion in uneaten food each year, according to a new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council. With all the floods, fires, and droughts, food prices are rising. NRDC outlines opportunities to reduce wasted food and money on the farm, in the grocery store and at home. At the NRDC site, read the full brief on how food gets wasted. Too many contaminants also tend to get into food.


There is a campaign going on now called NRDC's "Fix the FDA" campaign. The group is leading the effort to remove harmful chemicals from canned food and packaging. Also check out the NRDC's guides and tip lists to help consumers reduce exposure to mercury in seafood and chemical contamination caused by the BP oil spill.


A 15 percent reduction in losses in the U.S. food supply would save enough food to feed 25 million Americans annually


Food banks are concerned why so many people get rid of expired packages of food, such as canned vegetables and fish by donating it to the poor. There's no reason to take a chance on getting someone sick because the family is in need of help with food.

Each year as food costs skyrocket and schools close for breaks, food banks are bracing for a record number of cash strapped families seeking meals as children will not be getting free meals from school during the various annual breaks.


Food banks seek donations of food from manufacturers and wholesalers

Food banks across the U.S. are seeking increased donations as they face major shortages in food donations from manufacturers and wholesalers and a decrease in federal funding, while the demand for food handouts are increasing. But too many people decide to clean out their pantries and donate all the expired food they find to food banks. It's like putting coals in holiday stockings instead of gifts of edible foods.

Please don't donate expired food. You'd be surprised at how people donate food they've had for more than a decade.


These expired cans and packages of grains, pudding mixes, unused rice and cans of beans or legumes that have been standing since the 2000 doomsday prepared movement are shoved on Food Banks and places where people arrive to get free food, such as church pantries. People are still getting rid of expired canned food items such old cans of coconut milk, and long-expired soup cans on the shelf for decades. These keep turning up at food banks as donations. And food banks can't serve expired and unsafe food to hungry people.


The food is thrown out. If you have old, expired food like that, use it as compost for your garden mixed with garden soil in a composting bin. Where it usually lands up is at landfills. But most people want to know how long shelf life lasts on any given food item, medicine, or nutritional supplements such as vitamins and plant extracts. Some minerals such as calcium can last longer than vitamins.


Shelf life language sometimes is vague


If you check out the WebMD, site, you can see various ways food is classified regarding sell days. With canned food, the date of manufacture or expiration usually is stamped on the bottom of the can, and you should eat it by the date you see. Whether it's safety as an issue or taste, beyond that date, the food changes. Coconut milk in cans clump together as a solid and taste like white fat, for example, especially in the winter.


Some vitamin companies even list a date the produce had been manufactured rather than an expiration date. Sites such as StillTasty.com and EatByDate.com catalog how far past their supposed "best by" dates foods are still eatable, according to a January 18, 2013 Huffington Post article, "Expiration Dates for 23 Types of food." Check out the site to get a handle on how to read expiration dates and how long food remains safe and edible. For more information, you may wish to check out the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Check out NRDC's Eat Green guide give you the top four food choices you can make for the environment – and your own health. See the group's Smarter Living section. It can help you pick the safest seafood, outfit your kitchen with chemical-free cookware, find accurate food labels, and even grill better. They also provide delicious, healthy recipes for your new produce. NRDC's Eat Local guide helps you track down in-season produce and farmers' markets in your area. Check out sites such as the Eat Green Guide, the site on how to Find sustainable food with the Eat Local guide.


Check out the Smarter Living site for dozens of useful tools and tips. Or find out how NRDC is protecting and promoting New York City's urban foodshed. Also find out what you can do to reduce food waste in your home. Learn more about the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops. And find out how you can reduce food waste.


Some of the problems found by the The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) survey that need looking into include the emergence of precut produce or other packaged, fresh, ready-to-eat food. To the extent off-grade or slightly damaged product is made marketable and usable through trimming, this trend may help to increase overall efficiency in the system. Trimming creates more waste at the processing level but may be less wasteful than if those products were trimmed at home.


The survey found that trimmed produce also tends to use more packaging than untrimmed produce, which means more associated environmental impacts from packaging production and disposal. Trimmed produce spoils more quickly than whole produce once the package is opened but may be more protected en route.


Date wastage


Packaged produce not sold by the date wastage year, day, and month usually are discarded even when the food isn't spoiled. Who's qualified to determine whether food is spoiled if it's packaged and the seal not opened? The store manager?


Whole produce has a printed sell by date. How much flexibility is there to determine whether the food is spoiled or not if it's in the store or home? Precut produce in packages may lead to increased consumption rates at the consumer level due to its ease and accessibility. A similar trend toward precut produce can be seen in food service. But precut food gets thrown away quicker if not used or sold.


So more research is needed to find out the ultimate impact of this trend on produce and other foods. Also if packaging is damaged or items are not popular, edible food becomes unsalable. Then where does it go -- the to trash bin or to the homeless and/or hungry in search of free food or bargains such as bent cans that still are safe because there are no openings in the can?


The survey found that when produce arrives in a specific case size, the store is stuck with extra produce


The retailer can't order smaller amounts of a particular fruit or vegetable because so many come in one case, you can't order a smaller number of fruit, for examples, grapefruit. Another issue are too large portions. Many customers complain about too small portions in restaurants. But some also complain about too large portions.


The survey found that on average, diners leave 17 percent of meals uneaten and 55 percent of these potential leftovers are not taken home. Then again, you still have some customers complaining about the small portions in so-called "senior portions" of lunches and dinners that serve smaller amounts of food or less food on the plate, assuming older adults don't eat as much as younger people. Consumers, the government, and businesses need to cooperate in finding what works best, and what's most efficient. Check out what Europe is doing to reduce food waste. See the The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) survey.


When do eggs expire?


Some chefs say that the expiration date on eggs, for example can go beyond the usual two-week date stamped on the container. See, "Sell Date of Eggs - What's Cooking America" and "Can you eat expired eggs?"


NRDC experts work with growers, regulators and the largest food companies to toward the goal of making sustainable food available for everyone. "We've partnered with agricultural leaders and food companies to find the best ways to measure and improve use of water, energy, fertilizer, soil, pesticides and habitat on the farm."


The organization is leading the way to create a regional food system around New York City that can serve as a model for sustaining local farmers while increasing access for fresh fruits and vegetables for urban residents, notes its website. The organization has sounded the alarm on "food loss" -- the astonishing rate of food waste that occurs from farm to fork, resulting in massive losses of natural resources and increased costs.


Through efforts like these, the group can encourage less dependence of chemical pesticides and fertilizer, promote water efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce food waste, and provide a secure, healthy future for farmers and food producers.


Can you believe the food expiration dates on packaged foods? Some say "use by" with the date stamped below


Other packages are stamped with a "best by (date). Some chefs say eggs can be used even after the expiration date if they're refrigerated. See the site, "How long do eggs stay good in the refrigerator?" Also see the site, Expiration Date On Eggs - Extensive, Accurate Search Results.


Nutritional supplements such as vitamins and plant extracts may have a shelf life based on two years or less. Sometimes the date of manufacture is stamped on the container. That date would be different than the date of expiration. Minerals such as calcium and magnesium may last longer than the expiration date. Don't keep yogurt in the refrigerator more than a few days. See, How Long To Wait Before Trashing Expired Yogurt, Eggs. Consult several sites before taking any chances with food safety. Your refrigerator temperature and other factors play in here, including how long the item sat in the store cooler.


Manufacturer's date or expiration date on supplements?


Is your supplement marked with the date the product had been made in the factory? Or is it an expiration date when the product no longer is safe to eat, or loses its potency and taste? Minerals may last longer than plant extracts or vitamins that have an expiration date listed on the container.


When it comes to green leafy vegetables, the question is what's on a package of salad greens when it says "best by" (date) instead of "use by" date. Nutrition goes down rapidly with spinach left in the dark refrigerator. But carrots and beets, potatoes, and various root vegetables can last longer if stored in a dry, cool area of your refrigerator. Lemons can be kept out of the refrigerator, but limes need to be in the refrigerator to keep their nutrients. Tomatoes are not to be refrigerated unless they're already cut up. Always refrigerate vegetables and fruits that you cut, slice, puree, or chop.


Food is the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills, the NRDC's survey finds


Also, when you order nutritional items by mail from various online sites, many of these businesses don't mark the outside of the box "fragile, liquid, glass" or "this side up." And liquid items such as olive leaf extract, apple cider vinegar, and similar items spill out in their plastic wraps, especially when the inner seal on the bottles of liquid is not pasted on tight. These items need to be mailed in a tic-tac-toe type of cardboard retainer that keeps the glass bottles from bumping into one another. With plastic bottles, the liquid easily can spill even when wrapped in plastic bags.


The liquid in a carton box mailed out sometimes seeps out from under the loose inner seal under the cap, and the staff can't tighten the caps because there's also an outer plastic seal wrap around the cap. You may get a box filled with liquid, and no markings on the outside of the box which side should stay up in handling or marked 'glass' or 'fragile.'


When your product is stamped with a "sell by" date versus a "best buy" date

The sell by date usually lets you keep the item in the refrigerator a few days after you buy it, anywhere from two to five days, depending on what the item is. Green vegetables lose nutrition fast. Spinach in a plastic package loses nutrition in the dark refrigerator after a few days. Carrots dry out in the package about three to five days in the refrigerator after the "sell by" date is past. The "use by date" means you must use the item by that date of expiration. The "best buy" date refers to a food item tasting its best by the date stamped on the packaged item, such as cut up vegetables or fruit which is refrigerated.


There's also a stamp that may say "sell by" (date). The sell by date usually allows anywhere from three to five days in your refrigerator. Cans usually have a two-year shelf-life if unopened or not punctured, and the expiration date or the date of manufacture may be stamped on the top or bottom of the can or jar. It's best to check with the manufacturer as you don't want to eat food contaminated by a rusty can or eat the leached-out chemicals from the linings of the can that has been standing for a long time beyond the manufacturers date.


The USDA says that the date can be no further ahead than 30 days after the packing date. Your store can choose any day within that 30 days to date the eggs. If you don't find a date on the carton, using the eggs within three weeks of the carton date should allow them to be used within optimum quality. By "optimum quality," we refer to the fact that the yolk will be high and upstanding, and the white will be tall and firm.


As the membrane releases from the shell, the whites spread out, so you want to use fresh eggs for poaching and other recipes where shape is important, and save the older eggs for scrambled eggs and recipes that includes eggs. Check out the site, "Eggs: A Consumer Guide - Illinois Department of Agriculture."


What information is included on the egg carton label?

All eggs sold at retail must be prepackaged in new cartons. Labels must include the grade, size, candling date, and name and address of the packer, distributor or retail store. Although not required by law, operators are encouraged to stamp cartons with a date by which eggs should be sold.


The candling, or Julian, date is a three-digit number indicating the specific day of the year on which the eggs were graded, sized and packed. For example, the number 001 would represent Jan. 1, while 365 would be Dec. 31. This number provides an indication of the eggs' freshness.


Eggs cannot be sold at retail more than 30 days after the candling date. To prevent eggs from being sold beyond this time frame, many packers mark cartons with a "sell by" date. The "sell by" date, also called the expiration date, must not exceed 30 days after the candling date. After the expiration date has passed, unsold eggs are returned to the supplier where they may be recertified by trained graders or shipped to egg breaking plants for processing into liquid, frozen or dried eggs.


Is it safe to use eggs after the "sell by" or expiration date has passed?

Yes. "Sell by" or expiration codes indicate freshness, not necessarily wholesomeness. Since egg quality deteriorates over time, "sell by" dates are used to ensure the grade specified on the label is accurate. If stored properly, eggs may be safely consumed several weeks beyond the expiration date.


Are eggs nutritious?

Yes. Eggs contain 13 vitamins and numerous minerals. One egg provides 10 to 13 percent of the daily reference value for protein--as much as one ounce of lean meat, fish or poultry. Egg protein is the highest quality food protein--second only to mother's milk for human nutrition.


Eggs are nutrient-dense; they provide many nutrients compared to the number of calories they contain. The following chart lists the calorie count for different sizes. One large egg contains about 4.5 grams of fat, but only 1.5 grams of saturated fat, the kind linked to increased blood cholesterol levels. More than half the egg's total protein content is found in the egg white, which is both fat- and cholesterol-free.


Are white eggs better than brown eggs?

No. Shell color depends on the breed of hen that produced the egg. It does not affect the egg's nutritive value, cooking properties, flavor or quality.


Why do eggs sometimes turn green when cooked?

When eggs are cooked for too long or at too high a temperature, they will sometimes turn green. Color change may also occur if the cooking water contains a high level of iron. Although the green tint does not affect flavor or wholesomeness, it may be avoided by cooking at low temperatures and using stainless steel equipment.


Is it safe to consume eggs with blood spots on the yolk?

Yes. The presence of blood spots on the yolk does not mean the egg is fertilized or unfit to eat. Blood spots occur occasionally when a blood vessel on the yolk sac surface ruptures during egg formation. Easily removed with the tip of a knife, the spots do not affect the egg's nutritive or chemical properties.


What is salmonella?

Salmonella refers to a type of bacteria that may lead to food poisoning in humans and animals. Eggs, as well as other foods, are susceptible to bacterial growth. However, eggs have several natural barriers that help prevent contamination, such as the shell, enzymes found in the egg white and membranes surrounding the shell and yolk.


Observing the following precautions will help prevent salmonella food poisoning:


  • Use only fresh, clean, unbroken, properly refrigerated eggs.
  • Avoid mixing yolks and whites with the shell.
  • Refrigerate eggs and egg dishes if you do not plan to eat them within an hour.
  • Keep cold egg dishes at temperatures below 41 degrees and hot egg dishes above 140 degrees.
  • Use homemade eggnog and ice-cream recipes based on cooked, stirred custard.
  • Keep hands and utensils clean when cooking.
  • Wash hands before and after handling raw poultry products.

Agriculture Department officials conduct annual inspections of about 10,000 businesses that sell, grade, pack or serve eggs and more than 725 facilities that traffic large quantities of eggs to wholesalers or retailers. All people who market eggs commercially must be licensed by the Agriculture Department unless they are producers who only sell eggs for personal use. Agriculture Department inspectors visit supermarkets and other retail outlets to ensure eggs are kept in a sanitary environment, are adequately refrigerated, are whole and undamaged, and meet the grade, weight and date specified on the carton.


Can you believe the expiration date, the use-by date, the best used by date, the manufacturer's date, and the sell by date?


Most people may not know how long food can be kept and safely eaten whether it's in a can, the freezer, refrigerator, package, or nutritional supplement. How long can you keep milk if you refrigerate it at or below 40 degrees F after buying it? What if you freeze it? The rule is when it doubt, throw it out.


The problem is the expiration date of any given food may be haphazard when it comes to safety. Expired foods upset stomachs or have other side effects, including toxins. Check out the article in the Boston Globe. Most people don't eat foods past their expiration date. Some uncaring souls donate expired foods to food banks, particularly canned items that usually have lost their taste, color, and may be harmful. The actual statistics given note that three fourths of Americans think expired food is not safe to eat.