Expiration Dates Are A Total Hoax—Here's Why

Have you ever thrown out a perfectly good carton of milk because the date printed on top had passed? You're probably not going to like this, then.

By Alina Clough4 min read

What if we told you that the dates printed on food packaging are unregulated and essentially meaningless?

“Best by,” “use by,” “sell by”...what’s the difference exactly? When you’re standing in front of your fridge having a morning stare-down with a carton of milk, it’s normal to want to err on the side of caution and just toss food that’s past the printed date, no matter what kind of date it is. After all, sipping curdled milk is going to ruin your day way more than having to buy a new gallon of milk. But what if you’re just throwing out perfectly good food for no reason?

While you might think these dates are regulated, they’re far from an exact science. In fact, most food manufacturers set them pretty arbitrarily, often with the aim of trying to get you to throw out good food so you’ll buy more. Researchers have found that expiration dates rarely correspond to when food actually expires, but people are so set on the “better safe than sorry” mindset that most of us throw things out anyway. At this point, we’re needlessly terrified of our own food, and it’s leading us to waste money (and adding to a growing food waste problem). So if the dates don’t tell us much, why do we even have them? Is this really just a hoax?

Original Gangsters

You’re probably familiar with Al Capone’s history in crime. The old school Chicago gangster, known as “Scarface” to many, rose to infamy as a ruthless mob boss known for massacres and gambling, among other pursuits. What you might not realize is that the same Al Capone is credited by some as the godfather of the expiration date, a trivia tidbit that somehow gets overshadowed by his other life events. As the story goes, some of Al Capone’s family members got sick after drinking spoiled milk in the 1930s. The outraged Capone was then inspired to lobby the Chicago City Council to print date stamps on all milk containers, resulting in the first known instance of expiration dates, at least in the United States. 

Date stamps for other food didn’t grow in popularity for a few more decades. As food began to get more and more processed, consumers grew wary about just how fresh their food was. Especially as the American diet grew to be made up of more processed food that people had never seen before, consumers weren’t as sure whether they could trust the freshness of foods that no longer clearly rotted like fruits, vegetables, and meat, which had never needed dates to display their freshness. As a result, it was consumer demand, not federal regulation, that ultimately drove printed dates onto the scene.

The only expiration dates that are federally required are for infant formula.

Bad Dates

Believe it or not, to this day, the only expiration dates that are federally required are for infant formula. States have made laws to cover other cases, but the federal requirements for them pretty much say that it’s up to the manufacturer to decide both what the date is and what it means. USDA guidelines state that dates “may be voluntarily applied provided they are labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading,” but admit that it’s up to the manufacturers to “decide when food is of best quality.” Again, aside from infant formula, the federal government stresses that “dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.” As a result, dates can mean...just about anything the manufacturer chooses, and often refer to “quality” as defined by the manufacturer rather than actual expiration. So why all the different phrases? 

Well, here’s what they mean, according to federal guidelines:

  • Best If Used By/Before – This is meant to show when a product will be of best flavor or quality, according to the manufacturer. It has nothing to do with when the product should be purchased or how safe it is to consume.

  • Use-By – Similar to “Best If Used By,” this is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It has nothing to do with when the product should be purchased or how safe it is to consume.

  • Sell-By – This tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It has nothing to do with how safe it is to consume.

  • Freeze-By – Shows when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It has nothing to do with when the product should be purchased or how safe it is to consume.

Experts have raised concerns about how meaningless these dates are, since most consumers see a date on their product and assume they need to throw it out. “It is a complete Wild West,” says Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed, a nonprofit trying to end food waste. “Many consumers really believe that they are being told to throw the food out, or that even when they don’t make that choice, that they’re sort of breaking some rule.” 

Meanwhile, big-box manufacturers say that it’s in their marketing interest to get people to toss less-than-perfect food. “You want people to eat and enjoy the product when it’s at its peak,” says Andy Harig, vice president of sustainability, tax, and trade at the Food Marketing Institute, “because that’s going to increase their enjoyment, [and] encourage them to buy it again.”

One-fifth of food waste comes just from consumers not being sure about expiration dates on food.

At the same time, there’s serious concern over whether it’s a good idea to encourage people to keep tossing out perfectly good food. Almost half the food produced in the U.S. ends up right in landfills, and the FDA estimates that one-fifth of food waste comes just from consumers not being sure about dates on food. While this is an obvious issue for the planet, since we’re just stocking landfills full of things we really should have eaten, it’s also an issue for our bank accounts. Researchers estimate that most of us throw out somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275 in food annually, money that most families sorely need in a struggling economy

So...How Do You Tell if Something Is Expired?

Since expiration dates are murky at best, experts advise using a tool as old as time: your senses. Of course, follow general guidelines for food storage for immediately perishable items like meat, which shouldn’t be left unfrozen for more than a day or two, but for most other products, you’ll know if something has gone bad. We have senses for a reason, and on the topic of food expiration, the simplest answer seems to be the most reliable one. The “Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste” campaign offers some pretty solid advice on this front: If something looks like it has started to go bad, smells off, or tastes unusual, it’s probably best to toss it. 

Closing Thoughts

We often talk about “planned obsolescence” in terms of technology that’s designed to force us to upgrade every few years so big tech firms can profit. What most people don’t know is that this is what our groceries have been doing to us for decades. Look, smell, taste, but don’t waste your time listening to the basically meaningless dates printed on top of your cereal boxes. They’re nothing but a hoax.

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