Decoding Expiration Dates

A tag sealing a bag of hot dog buns displays a best before date of February 29
A tag sealing a bag of hot dog buns displays a best before date of February 29 Wikimedia Commons

Last week Nadia Arumugam in Slate validated my long-standing skepticism about food expiration dates. I have always operated on the assumption that if food looks okay, smells okay and tastes okay, it should be fine. I have been known to cut mold off a block of cheese and eat the rest.

As Arumugam writes, the government mandates dates only on baby formula and some baby food. The rest of the dates came about voluntarily. She writes, "In the 1930s, the magazine Consumer Reports argued that Americans increasingly looked to expiration dates as an indication of freshness and quality. Supermarkets responded and in the 1970s some chains implemented their own dating systems." One of the problem with the dates, says Arumugam, is the lack of consistency in the terms surrounding the dates. What's the difference between "sell by," "best if used by" and "use by"? Even though the F.D.A. doesn't mandate the use of them, it does offer some advice to decoding the terms. None of them, not even the "use by" date are considered safety dates. The food might not be at peak quality after the date, but it can still be eaten safely. Even the "use by" dates on baby food are related to nutrient retention and texture rather than safety. I had always suspected that the printed expiration dates on food were more about protecting the companies than the consumers. But Arumugam writes that the dates don't even have any legal bearing.

Last year, a judge reversed the conviction of a man who relabeled more than a million bottles of salad dressing with a new "best when purchased date." This extended the shelf life of the product so he could continue to sell them. In the reversal, the judge said, “The term ‘expiration date’ … on a food product … has a generally understood meaning: it is the date after which you shouldn’t eat the product. Salad dressing, however, or at least the type of salad dressing represented by Henri’s, is what is called ‘shelf stable’; it has no expiration date.” Even though the company decided to print a date on the package, a judge dismissed the date as not having any legal worth.

When it comes down to it, it's really the consumers job to determine when to toss food. And that's the conclusion Arumugam comes to. But she also brings up an interesting point: "Better yet, we should focus our efforts on what really matters to our health—not spoilage bacteria, which are fairly docile, but their malevolent counterparts: disease-causing pathogens like salmonella and Listeria, which infect the food we eat not because it's old but as a result of unsanitary conditions at factories or elsewhere along the supply chain." (Soda fountains, for instance, or slaughterhouses or turkey farms.) Unfortunately, the solution to that problem isn't as simple as a date stamped on an egg carton.