Confusion on the part of consumers on “use by,” “sell by,” and “best before” labels has led to a great deal of food being needlessly destroyed.
Consumers have wrongly come to assume that if a product on a store shelf, in a dairy or meat cooler, or in their own pantry or refrigerator is past one of the before mentioned dated use labels, it is spoiled and no longer safe to consume, and it is best to discard it immediately.
But as many food experts will tell you that’s not the case more often than not.
Tons of perfectly good food is destroyed every year due to confusion, or consumer misunderstanding about the purpose of such labels.
The expiration and best used by labels in most cases are used by retailers and manufactures to manage product rotation and inventory, and are not the final determination of a product’s safety.
Food products with expired dates, particularly packaged items like cereals and pasta, and foods that are canned, are often still safe, wholesome and good tasting for months, (some say years), beyond their expiration date.
As for dairy and meat products, the time table may be shorter, and how those products have been handled and stored since it was produced may be more important than its expiration date.
Out of code merchandise, as these type of products are called in the food industry, could, and should be donated to food distribution centers for the poor and homeless shelters, or offered at a discount to consumers struggling to make ends meet.
But retailers and manufactures, fearing lawsuits are often reticent to donate out of or soon to be out of code food products.
They fear criticism from the public and accusations that they have dumped food products that are no longer good on the poor.
The public has never really been educated on what the dates on food products mean. Part of the problem is that there are no consistent standards or regulations regarding the process, so many manufacturers and food producers just use whatever best suits their business model.
As a result, consumers have been wrongly conditioned to think that products that appear to be out of date are unhealthy, and even dangerous, when in reality the items are probably just as healthy as “day old bread.”
Manufacturers in cooperation with our regulatory agencies should adopt labeling practices that better inform consumers about a products’ longevity, and those standards should be enforced.
In this week’s issue, EGP reporter Jacqueline Garcia’s writes about allegations related to El Super’s selling of out of date food items. The story is an example of the confusion caused by labeling issues, which should in no way be confused with, or take away from real concerns about product handling and cleanliness, including when it comes to the cleaning of grocery carts.
This does not mean we believe grocery stores and other food sellers should be let off the hook for health code violations, or that they should make it a practice to keep out of date merchandise on the shelf, or in cold food cases or refrigerators. Quite the opposite is true.
Given the ongoing confusion about food labels, retailers would be wise to be diligent about rotating products.
They should also diligently follow and maintain other areas clean, as wells as regularly and thoroughly wash shopping carts.
If they don’t, customers have every right to complain loudly and often, or better yet, find somewhere else to spend their money.