Expiration Dates Are Meaningless
For refrigerators across America, the passing of Thanksgiving promises a major purge. The good stuff is the first to go: the mashed potatoes, the buttery remains of stuffing, breakfast-worthy cold pie. But what’s that in the distance, huddled gloomily behind the leftovers? There lie the marginalized relics of pre-Thanksgiving grocery runs. Heavy cream, a few days past its sell-by date. A desolate bag of spinach whose label says it went bad on Sunday. Bread so hard you wonder if it’s from last Thanksgiving.
The alimentarily unthinking, myself included, tend to move right past expiration dates. Last week, I considered the contents of a petite container in the bowels of my fridge that had transcended its best-by date by six weeks. Did I dare to eat a peach yogurt? I sure did, and it was great. In most households, old items don’t stand a chance. It makes sense for people to be wary of expired food, which can occasionally be vile and incite a frenzied dash to the toilet, but food scientists have been telling us for years—if not decades—that expiration dates are mostly useless when it comes to food safety. Indeed, an enormous portion of what we deem trash is perfectly fine to eat: The food-waste nonprofit ReFED estimated that 305 million pounds of food would be needlessly discarded this Thanksgiving.
Expiration dates, it seems, are hard to quit. But if there were ever a moment to wean ourselves off the habit of throwing out “expired” but perfectly fine items because of excessive caution, it is now. Food waste has long been a huge climate issue—rotting food’s annual emissions in the U.S. approximate that of 42 coal-fired power plants—and with inflation’s brutal toll on grocery bills, it’s also a problem for your wallet. People throw away roughly $1,300 a year in wasted food, Zach Conrad, an assistant professor of food systems at William and Mary, told me. In this economy? The only things we should be tossing are expiration dates themselves.
Expiration dates, part of a sprawling family of labels that includes the easily confused siblings “best before,” “sell by,” and “best if used by,” have long muddled our conception of what is edible. They do so by insinuating that food has a definitive point of no return, past which it is dead, kaput, expired—and you might be, too, if you dare eat it. If only food were as simple as that.
The problem is that most expiration dates convey only information about an item’s quality. With the exception of infant formula, where they really do refer to expiration, dates generally represent a manufacturer’s best estimate of how long food is optimally fresh and tasty, though what this actually means varies widely, not least because there is no federal oversight over labeling. Milk in Idaho, for example, can be “sold by” grocery stores more than 10 days later than in neighboring Montana, though the interim makes no difference in terms of quality. Some states, such as New York and Tennessee, don’t require labels at all.
Date labels have been this haphazard since they arose in the 1970s. At the time, most Americans had begun to rely on grocery stores to get their food—and on manufacturers to know about its freshness. Now “the large majority of consumers think that these [labels] are related to safety,” Emily Broad Leib, a Harvard Law professor and the founding director of its Food Law and Policy Clinic, told me. A study she co-authored in 2019 found that 84 percent of Americans at least occasionally throw out food close to the date listed on the package. But quality and safety are two very different things. Plenty of products can be edible, if not tasty, long past their expiration date. Safety, to food experts, refers to an item’s ability to cause the kind of food poisoning that sends people to the hospital. It’s “no joke,” Roni Neff, a food-waste expert at Johns Hopkins University, told me.
Consider milk, which is among the most-wasted foods in the world. Milk that has already soured or curdled can—get this—still be perfectly safe to consume. (In fact, it makes for fluffy pancakes and biscuits and … skin-softening face masks.) “If you take a sip of that milk, you’re not going to end up with a foodborne illness,” Broad Leib said, adding that milk is one of the safest foods on the market because pasteurization kills all of the germs. Her rule of thumb for other refrigerated items is that anything destined for the stove or oven is safe past its expiration date, so long as it doesn’t smell or look odd. In industry speak, cooking is a “kill step”—one that destroys harmful interlopers—if done correctly. And then there is the pantry, an Eden of forever-stable food. Generally, dry goods never become unsafe, even if their flavor dulls. “You’re not taking your life into your hands if you’re eating a stale cracker or cereal,” said Broad Leib.