Will this make me sick? The date stamps on food items, explained
A quick sniff test can generally determine whether milk has gone bad after a best by date passes. But it's harder to tell with other drinks or foods.
Sometimes it feels easier to ditch whatever product is old according to an expiration date, rather than risk hours—or even days— of food poisoning. But that often results in the trashing of perfectly edible food.
"It has been estimated that confusion over the multitude of different date labeling terms on food products accounts for about 20% of food waste in the home," Nathan Arnold, press officer for the Food and Drug Administration, told USA TODAY.
It's confusing, partially, due to the various terms used to determine whether food is still good. “Use before,” “sell by” and “expires on” are just some of the terms employed, Arnold noted.
"The FDA believes that food waste is due, in part, to fears that consumers have about food safety," Arnold said.
The Center for Disease Control estimates that there are 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses each year in the United States, or one in six Americans.
The labeling of expiration dates on foods actually isn't required by the FDA, except on infant formula. However, some state and local organizations do require expiration dates to be put on certain food labels.
"Manufacturers generally apply date labels at their own discretion and for a variety of reasons," Arnold said.
The most common reason to add a label is to let consumers and retailers know up to what date they can expect the food or drink to stay at its expected quality and flavor, he said.
That means the label isn't meant to indicate when an item will go bad entirely, but resulting confusion often means food is trashed by the date on the container.
To prevent this confusion, the FDA supports the use of an introductory phrase by manufacturers' when adding a quality date label: "Best If Used By."
"Consumer research has shown that this phrasing helps consumers understand that the date label is about quality, not safety, and that products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly," Arnold said.
There are other tools that consumers can use to determine if their food is good still, apart from the expiration date.
The United States Department of Agriculture developed a smartphone app called "FoodKeeper," which can help solve this problem.
Created in conjunction with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute, Arnold called it a "complete guide to how long virtually every food available in the United States will keep in the pantry, in the refrigerator, and in the freezer."
It breaks food longevity down by type of food including poultry, me, grains, etc.
Then it informs how long each food lasts based on where and how it is stored. For example, apples can last three weeks in a pantry, four to six weeks in a fridge, and a whole eight months in the freezer, if they have been cooked. (Pomegranates are a different story.)
The FoodKeeper includes 15 categories to help users determine how long their food will actually last.
And to avoid food poisoning or any other foodborne illness, the CDC recommends always following a standard safety procedure.
"Follow four steps: clean, separate, cook and chill," Brian Katzowitz, spokesperson for the CDC told USA TODAY in an email.
Follow Morgan Hines on Twitter: @MorganEmHines.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will this make me sick? The date stamps on food items, explained