Label dating game leads to $165b annual food waste

SPOKANE, Wash. - Sell By Dates vo

Americans waste $165 Billion worth of food each year, which averages out to about $2,200 per family. Part of that waste is caused by confusion over expiration labels.

What does "sell by", "use by", "best by" - and other labels – really mean? And, will eating food past that date really make you sick?

A new study from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic says date labels differ so widely that they are essentially useless. In fact, Washington State law only requires date labels on perishable foods. Idaho has no laws on the books requiring dates. This allows manufacturers to make their own choices about how and what they label.

As you walk through the aisles of the grocery store you pass by thousands of products and thousands of labels. Does the food go bad on its marked date? As we found out – no. In fact, some of the foods we buy are still safe to eat months after the date stamped on the side.

Dates, in essence, don't tell the consumer anything about the safety of the food. We wanted to dig deeper, so two KXLY viewers allowed us to go inside their refrigerators with food safety expert Lisa Breen with the Spokane Regional Health District.

Kollette McHaney is a mother of four growing girls and is strict about food labels. If today's date is on the food then it goes in the trash.

"Even when the kids will bring it to me and say 'will you smell or taste it' I'm like 'mmm no if it says that day throw it'," McHaney said.

Her husband on the other hand is more relaxed about food labels.

"I use the smell test, smell and taste," Roy McHaney said.

We wondered, is Kollette throwing money in the trash with her strict label rules? Or is Roy playing with fire by eating foods well past the label date. We certainly find a surprise in her fridge.

More on that in a bit.

Our second volunteer, Andrea Skranak, is a busy mother of teens.

"If the milk is two days past 'sell by' they're going to drink it, unless it's chunky they're not going to drink it," Skranak said.

She's relaxed about expiration dates.

"It's to save money, we go through about $600 dollars a month in groceries, I have teenagers so I'm not going to throw something away because 'oh the 'sell by' date' that's not good common sense," Skranak said.

Skranak's food philosophy helped us discover a lot about dairy and eggs inside her refrigerator. The first lesson? Dates on food items are meant for the manufacturer and retailer not for the consumer.

"It usually has to do with a quality issue and not a food safety issue," Breen said.

Breen says most foods can have a long shelf-life, well past the label date, if we handle them properly.

"In theory, as long as you're keeping a product under proper temperature control and it still looks good visually and it doesn't smell 'off' technically it should be safe to eat," Breen said.

Food spoils because we spoil it – by keeping it on the counter too long, or introducing bacteria with our hands, utensils or a sneeze. Take sour cream, for example, you can eat it past its label date if you keep it at a proper temperature and keep bacteria out of the container. Items like eggs can be kept even longer.

"If you purchase them before the expiration date or 'use by' date you can keep them for three to five weeks," Breen said.

What she's suggesting is that you can ignore the 'use by', 'sell by', 'freeze by', 'best by' labels and visually inspect your food.

"As long as you know you've handled it properly and kept your temperature control on products that have to be kept refrigerated or kept cold you're going to be okay," Breen said.

Back at the McHaney residence, Breen began her inspection of their refrigerator. You'll remember Kollette is strict about dates while her husband is not. The first question Kollette had for Breen regards meats.

"With the meats, for poultry and ground meats you do want to use them within one to two days if you have them in the refrigerator and for the steaks and pork and stuff like that three to five [days] is pretty good on that," Breen said.

Salad dressings turn out to be a boon for savings. Breen says it has so much vinegar or citric acid in it that they last far beyond the label date. That's why "stickler" Kollette was surprised to find an Italian salad dressing with a "March 2013" label on it still in her refrigerator.

"It's a vinegar base, this one is definitely okay," Breen said.

It turns out that no matter what you have in your refrigerator – dairy, meat, salad dressing – the label dates can mostly be ignored if you handle your food properly. So what happens if you don't?

"Nausea, a little bit of stomach discomfort, sometimes stomach cramping and often followed by diarrhea," Doctor Alisa Hideg said.

Hideg is a family practice physician with Group Health and says it's expected you'll get some type of food sickness in any given year.

"Bacterial food poisonings are the salmonella, shigella, ecoli, those are all bacteria that are very common," Hideg said.

Hideg keeps it simple when it comes to food safety.

"If you're in doubt, throw it out," she said.

After digging through two refrigerators it's safe to say that nobody is necessarily wrong in their food philosophies regarding expiration labels. We're all just a little misguided by confusing and unregulated food labels.

So instead of throwing away your food try waiting and remember these guidelines: handle your food properly, keep your food at a safe temperature, visually inspect it and smell it before you eat it. And, go with your gut.

"[Labels] usually have to do with a quality issue and not a food safety issue," Breen reminded.

For more information check out the USDA Food Safety Guidelines.