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What do the dates on food mean?

Adriene Hill Jun 15, 2012

What do the dates on food mean?

Adriene Hill Jun 15, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Here’s a task I would happily leave to dad or anyone else for that matter: Cleaning out the fridge of everything that’s out of date! And the pantry, while we’re at it.

Ever wondered what those dates REALLY mean? A can of soup has a “best before” date. Yogurt has a “use by” date. Eggs have a “sell by” date. Grapefruit juice? Well it just has a date.

We asked Marketplace’s Adriene Hill to do a little sniffing around, ’cause we waste a lot of money on expired food.

Adriene Hill: This story starts with Russ Calkins, a regular guy who got hungry when he was visiting his parents.

Russ Calkins: I think I was making, I was making my self a snack or something. As I recall I was using avocados and I thought this would be great with some sort of little topper thing.

He rummages around the family fridge, comes up with some French dressing. He pours it on, takes a bite and… Blah!

Calkins: It wasn’t particularly good. It had a little too much…. It had a little more zing than I was expecting.

So Russ looks a little closer at the dressing, and the date on the bottle is 2009. It’s three years old.

Calkins: I started looking at other dates. I started with condiments, which was the worst part.

Two-year-old ketchup. Ten-year-old mustard. This freaks Russ out. He says his mom has cancer and her immune system is compromised. His dad, who makes most of the food, can’t smell well.

So Russ goes through the fridge and the cupboards, tossing anything and everything with a date in the past. Tossing out hundreds of dollars of food. His mom was napping in the other room.

Calkins: Because I don’t think we would ever have been able to do this if she was fully up and about.

So did Russ make the right call? Or just waste a whole lot of money?

Christine Bruhn: He did the right thing.

Christine Bruhn is a food science professor at UC Davis. She says bacteria can grow in food that’s well beyond the date on its packaging. And as for the whole “food will tell you when it’s bad” thing, that I grew up believing?

Bruhn: That is absolutely not true, it’s a common myth, there is absolutely no validity to it at all. I mean if people could tell the difference, they wouldn’t eat things that made them sick and you wouldn’t have food-borne illness.

But all that said, not all food dates are created equal. Some have more wiggle room than others.

Jonathan Bloom: Expiration dates, the very term itself is a misnomer.

Jonathan Bloom is the author of “American Wasteland,” a book that looks at all the food we throw out.

Bloom: It’s not as if all the food is expiring at midnight on the date on the package.

It’s tricky, because there are a lot of dates out there: sell-by, use-by, best-by, best-before. Most are regulated at the local level. The feds only require expiration dates on infant formula. And each type of dating means different things, most of which are about the quality of the food, rather than the safety. In some cases, you can eat a food beyond those dates, stretch the dates a little. Or toss the food in the freezer and stretch them a lot.

But in other cases, dates can give you a false sense of well-being.

Michael Hansen: When you go to stores and see ground meat and other things and you see a sell-by date on it, that’s an indication to the store and the sell-by date is six days away from now.

Michael Hansen is a scientist at Consumer Reports.

Michael Hansen: What the consumer doesn’t realize, is if they take that product, buy it and take it home, they can’t take it home and consider it to be safe for four or five days days.

Hansen says that’s because our home refrigerators are warmer. Ground beef will last in the fridge only a couple of days. Now by some estimates, each American household tosses $600 worth of food a year. And what if you don’t want to waste all that money? Don’t start by eating the fish stinking up your meat drawer.

Instead, Jonathan Bloom says, learn to be a better shopper.

Bloom: We simply buy too much food. We’re bringing in so much food that we couldn’t possibly use all of it before it goes bad. So you get that image of that jam-packed refrigerator and think about trying to use all of those items before they turn gooey or a color you don’t want them to be, it’s a real challenge.

Don’t buy French dressing by the case, unless you really love French dressing. And if you do have too much, share before it gets too zingy.

I’m Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

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