Ask Eartha: Misleading expiration dates lead to rampant waste |

Ask Eartha: Misleading expiration dates lead to rampant waste

Red apple mourning over death
Getty Images/moodboard RF | moodboard RF

Dear Eartha,

Can you please explain what product expiration dates really mean? I hate to waste food for no reason, and I have noticed that just because a product is past its date doesn’t mean that it has spoiled.

— Lilly, Frisco

I agree that wasting food is a terrible thing, and unfortunately it is rampant here in America. According to the February 2014 study from the USDA, 31 percent, or 133 billion pounds, of the food that reaches the retail market goes uneaten annually in the United States. That is about $161.6 billion wasted on food that ends up in the compost, or worse, the landfill, every year.

Research from the U.K. organization Waste & Resources Action Programme, or WRAP, concludes that at least 20 percent of the food that goes to waste is directly associated with consumers misunderstanding date labels. After all, if your milk is past its date and you throw it out, you do not then stop drinking milk, you go to the store to buy some more.

First off, unless it is baby formula, those “use by” date labels on food and drinks are not regulated. This is confirmed by the USDA’s food labeling site. “Use by” dates and “best by” dates are simply the suggested date that a product is at its peak quality. These suggestions are made by the manufacturer and are not regulated by any sort of third party. If you have something that is past its “use by” date or “best by” date, it is probably still good, just not at the manufacturer’s idea of peak.

Even the “sell by” dates can be confusing. “Sell by” dates are really only intended to be used by the folks who stock the shelves at the grocery stores. It means that the product still has several days or weeks until it spoils, in order to leave plenty of time for the consumer to use up the product. Most stores will mark down or discard products that are past their “sell by” date even though they might still be good. Some consumers mistake this “sell by” date for an expiration, and therefore a dangerous product, even though it probably has several weeks before it actually goes bad.

By being informed about what “use by,” “best by” and “sell by” dates actually mean, you can make a huge difference in the amount of food wasted in your own home. Aside from that, these are my top five ways to reduce food waste in your home.

1. Lov’n the Leftover: Make sure to hold onto the extras at dinner in a food-storage container. You can always bring these to work for lunch, or work them into another meal later in the week.

2. Refrigeration Rotation: Make sure that when you get home from the grocery store, you don’t just stuff the new goodies in front of the old. By keeping the older items in front, you are more likely to use them before they go bad.

3. Hit the Bar: If you only need a little bit of something, consider going to the salad bar for those perishable ingredients. Don’t buy more than you need, if it is not something easily stored.

4. Don’t Shop on Empty: Always eat a snack before going grocery shopping. According to Cornell University, you not only purchase more food on an empty stomach, but also buy higher calorie, less healthful foods.

5. Plan Ahead: Always use a grocery list or meal planner to avoid unnecessary purchases that you may never use. Not only will you reduce waste, you’ll save money!

By knowing what those food dates really mean, and using my top five food-waste reduction tips, you’ll be amazed by the savings — both in the amount of money you spend at the grocery store and the amount of food you throw away. Also check out ways to get involved with the Zero Waste movement.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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