Whenever I go back home to visit Australia, I have a favorite restaurant that sells amazing kangaroo burgers. Enormously delicious, highly recommended, and very safe. Nearby is a nougat factory where you can watch the staff make these sweet confections through a glass window while snacking on a free sample. Incredibly delicious, highly recommended, and extremely safe. It was on one such visit that a fellow patron idly browsing the products turned to me and said, “you know, back in my day we didn’t have any of this food expiration date nonsense.” Not a good idea, not recommended, and highly dangerous!
Marketing is a field that affects all consumers, and I love discussing my field. However, product labeling legislation is one area that is far too boring for most situations. But this person brought it up, so this was my chance!
I explained to the middle-aged gentlemen about how many lives had been saved by “best before,” “use by” and other food expiration dates. And how back in his day people were sickened far more often, costing the economy as a whole far more. When it comes to far-reaching legislation, a decision is made based on the cost-benefit analysis on a large scale, not individuals. Furthermore, not everyone has keen enough senses to see mold or smell rot. Or such an impeccable memory to track the age of their food.
Nor is shelf time consistent. In the US, one week after Thanksgiving is the worst time to shop as everyone has already stocked up. Any fresh food you buy has been sitting on the supermarket shelf for at least 7 days.
Nor is spoilage time consistent. Technologies and recipes differ among brands, regions and over time. Organic variants of foods may have a shorter shelf life because they can not be irradiated (despite the technology being perfectly safe and extremely effective).
Your Grandparents’ Date Labeling
No, your grandparents didn’t have the same food safety labels as we do today, but nor were they as far disconnected from their food sources, or consuming as much packaged or pre-made food.
Before food expiration date labels were introduced in the 1970s, manufacturers used “closed” dating systems with symbols and numerical codes undecipherable by the consumer. This 1979 Washington Post article walks you through the deciphering process. In one 1975 study of 250,000 consumers, 89% favored “open” dating with a clear day, month, and year. Since then, individual US states have released their own open date labeling laws through the 1970s, while Australia and New Zealand share a unified Food Standards Code, started in 1978.
The downside to this is food wastage by both retailers and consumers. Academics calculate that food wastage costs the average American family $2,275 annually. Confusing terms such as “baked for”, “sell by”, “best before”, “freshest before”, “expires on” and “use by” are still not federally regulated in the US, and Americans are confused. The good news is Congress is considering a new federal Food Date Labeling Act, but standardizing text won’t matter as much as you’d think. Only 20 percent of food wasted in U.K. households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. 37% of American study participants reported they “always” or “usually” discard food near the printed date, no matter the surrounding words.
Packaging labels represent a small part of product safety legislation that has slowly evolved over time. Consumers are asking for better labeling, not the abolishment of it. Those seeking abolishment of such safety labels are a tiny ignorant minority. Yes, Lifehacker, expiration dates are not the clearly defined science most people expect, and the old man was partly right; most of us can ignore best before dates a lot of the time, and just use our senses. That is until accurate smart food labels, talked about since 2014, come to market.
- USDA FoodKeeper Site (on FoodSafety.gov)
- USDA FoodKeeper app for iPhone and Android
Storage and Defrosting Guides:
- Food Storage 101: Where And How Long To Keep Your Favourite Foods | Lifehacker
- The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods for Consumers | USDA
- The Best (And Quickest) Ways To Thaw Frozen Food | Lifehacker
- The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America | Natural Resources Defense Council & Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic
- Misunderstanding Food Date Labels Linked With Higher Food Discards, 2019, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
- Food Waste Is a Major Problem. Confusing Date Labels Are Making It Worse | Pew Trusts
- Visual and tactile smart food labels