Current Events

Really Wasted: Confusing Dates on Food Packaging Result in Waste

Really Wasted: Confusing Dates on Food Packaging Result in Waste

Upon arriving home after an exhausting day of work, acquiring an afternoon snack occasionally becomes a quest of epic proportions. The pantry is laid open and thoroughly ransacked. Echoes of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Living in the Fridge” can be heard in the cold, dark, forgotten crevasses of the refrigerator as it coughs up GladWare sarcophagi of moldy leftovers from days gone by. A twinge of excitement at finding the Holy Grail in the form of unmolested munchies still in their store-bought container quickly dissipates upon further discovery of a familiar phrase stamped in black—“BEST IF USED BY”—followed by a date which seems like a distant memory. And into the garbage it goes…

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Looking at the bulging reinforced plastic trash bag, which by now almost overflows with over half of the once edible contents of the kitchen, a curious observer could easily be forgiven for pondering how much food is wasted in an average household on a yearly basis. How much money, which could be used to pay utility bills and buy Christmas gifts, has been lost in purchasing items to place in the pantry only to eventually forward them to a nearby landfill? Rescued from their untimely demise, how many third-world countries worth of starving children could these abandoned morsels satiate, if only we were better managers of one of life’s essential assets: food?

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Expiration Dates and Food Waste

Melodrama aside, food waste is a genuine problem, and misunderstanding the dates on food packaging is a significant factor. A Time magazine article by Alexandra Sifferlin claims that over 90% of Americans throw away food based on expiration dates printed on the packaging, thus contributing to over 40% of the nation’s food supply being thrown away each year. These numbers are attributed to a report co-authored by Havard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Eggs and boxed macaroni and cheese are two examples given by Sifferlin in a related article, “Is Your Food Expired? Don’t Be So Quick to Toss It,” of foods that can be enjoyed well past the dates printed on their containers.

Additionally, dates on food packaging preceded by the words “USE BY’ and “BEST BY” are decided upon by the food manufacturer as a best guess of a product’s peak freshness. Neither phrase is intended to indicate the date a product becomes inedible. Dates on packaging preceded by the words “SELL BY” are not intended by the manufacturer to influence consumers at all. They are used to help guide stores in rotating their products for maximum shelf life after the products have been purchased.

Bottom Line

Dates on food packaging do not indicate when a product spoils; however, over 40% of the food supply in the United States is thrown away each year, largely because of confusion over these dates. Many foods, especially those that do not require refrigeration, can be enjoyed well past the dates printed on their packaging. Therefore, food should not be discarded solely due to having expired dates on their labels.

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Randal A. Burd Jr. is a freelance writer, educator, and poet from Missouri. He is also a Kentucky Colonel and a genealogy enthusiast.

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