To combat the massive problem of food waste, the US Department of Agriculture has undertaken a pretty aggressive campaign to educate the public, but some of their recommendations may leave consumers even more confused.
In a video released last week, a spokesman for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service turned some heads by suggesting that some foods could be good for well over a year after the “sell by” date. “Many products might have a sell by date of, say, April 1,” said Chris Bernstein, “but they could be good in your pantry for another 12 or 18 months.”
Really? You might ask. Does not eating 18-month-old food really make me a food waster? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Obviously, not all foods are the same, and similarly, not all food labeling is the same. The USDA FSIS openly admits on their website that a large part of the problem is that food dating isn’t particularly well regulated or consistent across the country. They write, “There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.”
To complicate matters even further, different dates on food have different meanings, and none of them really have to do with food safety. “Use by” dates, for example, refer to what a manufacturer deems a food’s peak quality—not whether you could get sick from eating it.
So what should we consumers do? The USDA thinks we should get to know more about when our food goes bad. To help with that, they rolled out an app earlier this month called Foodkeeper, although early reviews have been mixed. But there are plenty of other resources, like eatbydate.com that also have thoroughgoing lists of how long food ought to last beyond its "best by" date. However we get the information, though, it’s time for most of us to rethink what we’re throwing away.