Americans are trashing perfectly good food – will better labeling minimize the waste?

(Photo: Allen Fairbanks)

(KUTV) — If the food in your fridge is expired, you'd likely throw it out. But a Get Gephardt investigation finds that, in doing so, you are likely trashing perfectly good food.

At the center of the problem is confusion over what the “expiration dates” printed on food actually mean, experts say.

The confusion is understandable. The labels don't seem to have any consistency.

Taking a day for 'investigative shopping' around several local grocery stores, on packaged food, Get Gephardt found a date was almost always printed. But that date was preceded by a gambit of words and phrases.

Shoppers will see “Sell by,” “Use by,” “Eat by, “Expires on,” “Enjoy by, “Best before, “Guaranteed fresh,” as well as other phrases – or sometimes just the date printed all by it’s lonesome.

“I think it's very confusing for consumers to have so many phrases on the packaging,” says Travis Waller with the Utah Dept of Agriculture.

The resulting confusion is “a lot of food is wasted,” he says.

Multiple studies agree. In going by the date and erring on the side of caution, it is estimated that a family of four throws away about $2,000 worth of still perfectly edible food every year. That adds up to roughly $29 billion annually in the U.S. and as much as $200 billion globally.

Most of that confusing labeling is actually completely voluntary. By federal law, the only thing that must have an expiration date printed on it is baby formula.

Under Utah rules, products that are produced in the store, like what you might see in a deli counter, must be sold within seven days. If packaged, those items must legally contain a “use by” date, Waller says.

It's important for people to be cautions because bad food can make you sick. But, most food is good long after the date that's printed on the product as long as it is stored properly, he says.

Waller says products are often stamped with dates by manufacturers who think it will taste better if consumed before that date, not because it is bad. He says that the best way for consumers to gage the safety of their food is to use their eyes and noses. If it looks bad or smells bad, then, “when in doubt, throw it out.” Otherwise, he says he consumes food in his home sometimes several years after the stamped “expiration date.”

Now, to fight the waste, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are taking action, asking food makers to all start using the same language by 2020.

That means that in about a year and a half, you should only see two phrases: "use by" or "best if used by."

The “use by” label will be reserved for highly perishable products — foods that could make you sick when they go bad.

The other label, “best if used by” is for everything else. They’re still safe to eat, but they might not taste as good.

Waller supports the labeling changes, saying they are "long overdue." He expects they will cut down on waste and result in consumers saving money.

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