SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Consumers can’t see the food inside many packages they buy at the grocery store. That makes it hard to know if the food is fresh. Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not required by federal law.
It is voluntarily done by the food manufacturer to help the grocer know how long to display a food and help the consumer make the best choice for food quality.
According to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, such confusion leads nine out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food. The survey found 90 percent of Americans “at least occasionally throw food away prematurely because they mistakenly interpret the date label to mean their food is unsafe” — and 25 percent say they always discard food on or before that date.
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The researchers blame “a lack of binding federal standards, and the resultant state and local variability in date labeling rules” for the inconsistency in date-labeling practices.”
In 2012, one national study estimated that 40 percent of the country’s food supply goes uneaten. The cost of that wasted food is about $165 billion, including $900 million in “expired” food.
A family of four, the study found, spends an average of $455 a year on food it doesn’t eat. The researchers recommend making “sell by” dates invisible to the consumer, and have the food industry establish a standard, uniform labeling system.
There are three types of dates on a food that is purchased. If the package says “Sell By,” be sure to purchase the food before the date listed. The “sell by” date tells the grocer how long to display the food. The food should remain good for a period of time once you get it home.
The “Best if Used By” is not a purchase or safety date. The date stamped after that term is the date the food should be used by for best flavor or quality. A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for peak quality of the product.
All three terms are guides to help a purchaser determine the quality of the food. The food can be safe and of good quality after any of the three above open-dating terms are used.
It is important that food be stored properly on the shelf or at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below in the refrigerator. To give an idea of how long a person can store fresh foods at home after a purchase, poultry, ground meat and ground poultry and sausage should be stored only one to two days.
Fresh beef, veal, lamb and pork can be stored three to five days. Eggs can be stored three to five weeks after purchase. Processed foods sealed at the plant can be stored longer.
Cooked sausage or poultry can be stored three to four days unopened after purchase and then three to four days after opening. Bacon, hot dogs and luncheon meats can be stored two weeks unopened after purchase. Once opened, bacon and hot dogs should be used within one week and luncheon meat should be used in three to five days.