Use-by labels more for food quality than safety

If you religiously check the dates on all of your grocery products and throw out anything that’s past that magic number on the calendar, we may have news for you:

You’re doing it wrong.

A September report released by the Harvard Food Law and Poverty Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food each year — 10 times as much as consumers in Southeast Asia — and concluded that confusion about the dates on food packages is a “key contributor” to the waste. The reason? A “convoluted system” that “is not achieving what date labeling was historically designed to do — provide indicators of freshness,” the report states.

There are, you see, no federal regulations regarding date labeling. Well, let’s take that back; according to the Retail Association of Nevada, federal regulations do require dates on infant formula and baby food. After that, though, all bets are pretty much off. Most everything else is marked with a “sell-by,” “best if used by” or “use-by” date, which, in most cases, pertain more to food quality than food safety.

Mary Wilson, a registered dietitian and extension nutrition specialist with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, says she “absolutely” sees confusion and resulting waste among the consumers she works with.

“They’ll look at those ‘sell-by’ dates, and they assume that if it passes the sell-by date, the food is no longer safe,” Wilson said. “Therefore, they do throw things away, thinking that they’re not edible and they’re not safe.

“We know that that’s not true with milk, which, if stored properly, can be used five days past that date. With eggs, they’re stamped with a sell-by date. They’re good for three to five weeks after that. It just depends on the product.”

Such dates, Wilson said, generally are a recommendation for best flavor or quality.

“It doesn’t mean that the product is unsafe,” she said. “The flavor and the quality just start to diminish past that date.”

You know the old saw — since discredited — that raw eggs that float are rotten? Or the reality that hard-cooked eggs that are fresh are tougher to peel than those that are not? In both cases, Wilson said, that’s because as eggs age, the moisture in them gradually evaporates and the air pocket inside the shell gets correspondingly larger. The larger air pocket near the top of the egg causes it to float, and also makes it easier for the shell to be removed.

“They’ve started to dry out,” Wilson said. “It’s not necessarily true that they’re bad.”

A lot of consumers err on the side of caution, tossing anything that’s past the label date. We’ve all heard stories like the colleague whose visiting brother threw out her mustard and ketchup, even though they were perfectly fine. And it’s true that it’s important to know which things should trigger caution and about which things it’s OK to be a little more cavalier.

“Butter, margarine, fruit juice, fresh fruits, coconut, raisins, peanut butter, jelly, chocolate sauce, ketchup and olives tend to be safe,” Wilson said. “I usually keep those longer. I’d hate to think what the expiration date is on some of mine.”

She suggests consumers mark products when buying them to record how long they’ve had them — and how long the product has been open.

Which is something that the Southern Nevada Health District requires food-service establishments to do. First of all, let’s address what the district considers “potentially hazardous foods,” the foods that should inspire caution. Rose Henderson, the district’s acting environmental-health manager for food operations, rattled off a list.

“Meat, fish, poultry, salad made with any type of meat, fish, poultry,” Henderson said. “Typically, things that when they take it home from the deli, they would put it in the fridge.”

Once a potentially hazardous food has been prepared in a commercial food outlet, Henderson said, it must be labeled if it’s not going to be used within a 24-hour period. And then the business has seven days to use it, or toss it out.

Sometimes, she said, the district’s inspectors also pay attention to date labels, such as if they involve a food that’s capable of growing bacteria. In Nevada, those include those potentially hazardous foods and dairy products, and a food that’s past the stated date can draw a violation.

“If it’s something like, say, cereal, or a salad dressing that is a shelf-stable salad dressing, if it has a best-by date and has expired or is past that date, that would not bear the same public health significance as something that would grow bacteria,” Henderson said. “We do not write violations on an item such as that.”

If, for example, a bread product is past the label date but has no signs of mold, there would be no violations.

“With no signs of notable spoilage, we do not put it where there would be demerits,” she said, “because the food-borne illness risk is not significant. We base it on risk.”

There are exceptions, however.

“If it has mold on it, it rises to the level of a spoilage issue,” she said, and demerits would be issued.

Obviously, the same rules don’t apply to your home, because restaurant inspectors aren’t going to pop up, unannounced or otherwise, in your kitchen (although some food-safety experts maintain that most sources of food-borne illness are traced to the home). But Henderson said it’s smart to apply the seven-day rule for leftovers.

But let’s go back to milk. In the home, as Wilson said, milk can be safely used five days past the label date — if it’s been “stored properly.” But most of us have encountered a jug of milk here or there that has started to go sour even before its label date, and that’s because, somewhere along the way, it hasn’t been stored as it should have been.

“Sometimes they’ll bring that carton of milk and set it on the table during dinnertime,” she said. “It doesn’t take too much warming up of that milk to decrease the shelf life.” That’s also why milk may be more quick to sour during the summer, when the possible heat-attack points are many, and why many consumer groups advise picking up your milk as the last item before you head to the checkout.

Practices on when foods are removed from shelves vary from one company to the next. Marsha Gilford, a spokeswoman for Smith’s, said the company’s stores mark down their milk when it’s nine days before its label date, and donate it when it’s eight days before the date. Other products are pulled later.

“When that product hits that sell-by date, our policy is to pull it,” Gilford said. “In Las Vegas we donate all of our reclamation to Three Square food bank. Three Square gets thousands of pounds of food because it will be good beyond a sell-by date, more than likely.”

But they do still throw some food away.

“Sadly, yes,” Gilford said. “In our sustainable practices, we have made such a strong effort to capture anything from the waste stream that could be nutritious and used by families here in Nevada. What is beyond being able to help provide nutrition to families is discarded.”

Dan Williams, chief operating officer of Three Square, said what is given to the food bank varies from company to company.

“For example, Smith’s will not give packaged salad mixes because it’s the No. 1 recalled item in the produce department,” he said.

Williams said pickups are scheduled to try to obtain the foods as fresh as possible. In some cases, he said, items that are about to go out of date, like milk, are frozen by the retailer.

Williams said whether an item is used past its label date is determined by what the code is interpreted to mean, and whether the food bank is giving the food as a donation or selling it to another agency.

“If it is a ‘sell-by’ date, we don’t really worry about it too much,” he said. “We will never sell an out-of-code item.”

As for items that are donated, he said some are past their label dates, such as certain salad dressings.

“That could be a cereal, maybe up to a year past its date,” he said.

Williams added that some corporations that donate food to Three Square require that it be distributed before its label date.

Wilson, too, said that any food that’s nearing its label date that can be frozen, should be. But there’s a caveat there as well.

“I always try to caution people that once a product is frozen — like lunchmeat, meat or poultry — the dates become irrelevant,” she said.

“About this time of year, I often get a call on turkey. Whole turkeys, raw, kept frozen, are good for up to a year.”

Now you don’t have to call Wilson.

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.