It's common knowledge that the food we buy has a shelf life. We all see food date labels on just about everything. The question, however, is what exactly do those dates mean and what do we do once that date has passed and the food remains uneaten or unfinished?

It appears that for a lot of people, once the date on a food date label has passed, they should throw the food away immediately. However, that may not be the best course of action and it led Hartel's Disposal in Duluth to post a reminder on just what food date labels mean.

Hartel's Disposal shared an informational sheet that states food is the single largest part of trash collected. In fact, it represents more than 20+% of all trash collected. They add that just a fraction of our food waste ends up composted or collected and most is hauled to a landfill.

When food is wasted, it wastes resources (water, energy and labor). Wasted food in the landfill rots and produces methane — a super-pollutant more powerful than CO2. It would be better to return those nutrients to the soil to nourish the soil for the next generation of crops

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The USDA estimates that 30 percent of the food supply is lost or wasted at the retail and consumer levels. One source of this waste is consumers or retailers who throw away wholesome food because of confusion about the meaning of dates displayed on the label.

One way to cut down on food waste is to make sure everyone understands food date labeling so that perfectly good food isn't simply being discarded. Here are some examples of commonly used phrases and what they mean:

  • A "Best if Used By/Before" date indicates when a product will be of the best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • A “Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula.
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

It's worth noting that the Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that food manufacturers and retailers use a “Best if Used By” date. They say research has shown that this phrase tells consumers that the product will simply be of best quality if used by that calendar date. However, foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated, and consumed beyond the labeled "Best if Used By" date.

With the exception of infant formula, the USDA reiterates that if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome as long as it was handled properly and was properly refrigerated if recommended. Food should be thrown away, however, when signs of spoilage are evident. Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor, or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria.

Hopefully, the more people who are aware of what food date labels mean, the less food will be wasted throughout the country. The USDA's Food Product Dating Page is a terrific resource for consumers, providing a wide variety of related information.

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