Food for thought: How understanding date labels can prevent food waste

May 15, 2024, 10:39 PM

MARRIOTT-SLATERVILLE, Utah – Inside Kristina Enz’s fridge, you’ll find all the usual suspects: Eggs, cheese, fresh fruits and veggies, milk, and a collection of aging condiments.

Some of them really aging, including a steak sauce which expired nearly two years ago.

“Apparently not using enough steak sauce,” Enz remarked.

She opened her fridge and cupboards to KSL and Palak Gupta, an assistant professor in Utah State University’s Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science.

Our goal wasn’t to judge Enz for harboring way expired steak sauce, but rather to look at better understand food date labels.

“It’s hard to know what to throw out and what not to throw out,” said Enz.

The USDA estimates we toss out 30-40% of our food purchases, even though much of it is perfectly safe to eat. Decoding date labels could help you bust inflation. (KSL TV)

Guidelines – not rules

The variety of date labels add to the confusion. Manufacturers use many different terms, which can be interpreted in many different ways: “Best Before,” “Best When Used By,” “Best When Purchased By,” “Sell By,” “Freeze By,” “Packed On,” “Fresh Until,” “Enjoy By,” “Use By,” etc.

While labels like “use by” sure sound like you need to consume a food item by a certain date or you’ll get sick, that’s not necessarily the case.

Federal guidelines only require safety labeling for infant formula.

As for everything else? Gupta says it’s just something manufacturers have chosen to do.

“It’s just an arbitrary guideline to tell you that manufacturers think this is the right time for its peak quality for the product,” she said.

And that thought motivates them to set expiration dates days, if not weeks, ahead of when safety becomes a problem.

“You would be surprised how much food is getting thrown out just because consumers don’t know it’s still safe to eat,” said Gupta.

Confusion leads to waste

A national survey published by Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation found 37% of people always or usually toss out food based on the date label. And in an open letter to the food industry, the FDA highlighted an estimate that about 20% of all food waste in the U.S. is due to date label confusion. That adds up to tens-of-billions-of-dollars’ worth of food tossed into the garbage, according to the FDA.

Trust your senses

So, if confusing date labels aren’t about safety, how do you avoid tossing food that’s perfectly edible? The best answer is to trust your senses – sight, taste, and smell.

“You definitely can do the sniff test,” said Gupta. “You can sniff it and know if the food is right.”

If it gives off a sour or foul odor, toss it. Or if you see mold, a weird color or perhaps sliminess, toss it. Or if the flavor or texture is off, toss it.

The USDA also has a free FoodKeeper app which can tell you how long specific items will last in your fridge or pantry before they’re likely to spoil. And spoiler alert – it can sync your purchases to a calendar.

“It will send you a notification or reminder after like two weeks – ‘Hey, it’s in your fridge use it,’” Gupta said. “It also sends recall information to your phone every day.”

And food not handled properly can go bad before the label’s date. We’re talking about food left out on the counter too long or left in the car too long after the shopping trip. Or if it’s stored in a fridge set to the wrong temperature. Palak says that should be set below 40ºF.

But bottom line: If a pack of sausages or a container of yogurt goes one or even couple days past the date on the label, you probably don’t have to chuck it.

However, a two-year-old bottle of steak sauce might be pushing it.

Get Gephardt

FILE - This combination of 2017-2022 photos shows the logos of Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Snapch...

Matt Gephardt and Sloan Schrage

Scammers offer to help regain control of hacked social media accounts for a fee

People are advertising they can help you get back into your hacked social media accounts. It is a lie.

5 days ago

A Utah man purchased Aerosmith tickets back when the show was scheduled in 2023, but the show got p...

Matt Gephardt

Utahns fighting for refunds on postponed Aerosmith concert

A Utah man purchased Aerosmith tickets back when the show was scheduled in 2023, but the show got pushed to a day that no longer works for him. He decided to Get Gephardt when his quest for a refund hit a dead end.

7 days ago

KSL’s Matt Gephardt price shopped several items at traditional grocery stores and specialty food ...

Matt Gephardt

Gephardt Busts Inflation: Will shopping specialty food markets save you money?

To save money on your groceries, a specialty food market might not come to mind. But KSL Consumer Investigator Matt Gephardt found branching out to specialty food markets might help you bust some grocery inflation.

13 days ago

Gal Gadot, Chris Stapleton, Taylor Swift, Keanu Reeves among many other celebrities have had their ...

Matt Gephardt

Utahns are losing money and their personal info to celebrity imposter scams

A Utah man contacted the KSL Investigators to ask us to verify if he was messaging the real Gal Gadot of “Wonder Woman” fame through social media.

19 days ago

Cris Meyers showing Matt Gephardt the arrest warrant he was sent by the fake cop....

Matt Gephardt

Law enforcement scams threatening jailtime if you don’t pay on the rise in Utah

Law enforcement scams, that threaten jail for citizens if they don’t pay immediately are on the rise in Utah

20 days ago

(FILE) A man working on a car with the hood lifted up....

Matt Gephardt and Sloan Schrage, KSL TV

What you should know about extended car warranties and how to fight denials

One after another, the KSL Investigators heard from Utahns who paid monthly for an extended auto warranty but have not had a smooth ride in their repairs covered.

25 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 Internet Safety Tips for Kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Food for thought: How understanding date labels can prevent food waste