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Confused over Food Expiration Dates?

It is our privilege here at the Midwest Food Bank to be able to serve, you, our partner agencies as you serve your communities and those in need. Our mission as we help "bridge the gap between prosperity and poverty" is to provide the utmost in service to you so that, together, we are able to help those who are hungry. As such, we strive to keep learning and discovering how we can best accomplish the goals of capturing food before it's disposed of, transport it efficiently and keep it in our warehouse safely so that we can distribute it to you as soon as possible.

A (somewhat) recent report (September 2013) by the Natural Resources Defense Council has come to our attention and we feel compelled to share it with you. The title of the issue brief is "The Dating Game: How Confusing Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash." The entire NRDC brief can be found at, and we encourage you to take some time to read it. Here are a few excerpts from the report that we found particularly interesting.

"The Expiration Date Myth - Here's a superbly-kept secret: All those dates on food products—sell by, use by, best before—almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food, and generally speaking, they're not regulated in the way many people believe. The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety. In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat."

"A British study estimated that 20 percent of food wasted in British households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. If this same estimate were true for the U.S., it would mean that the average household is discarding $275 to $455 per year of good food because of confusion over date labels."

"An industry report concluded that about $900 million worth of expired product is removed from the supply chain annually. While not all of this was due to confusion, a casual survey of grocery store workers found that even some employees themselves do not distinguish between different kinds of dates. In addition to the financial costs, all of the resources required to grow food are wasted along with the food itself. In total, about 40 percent of food is never eaten in the United States."

Let me (Lisa from MFB) repeat that, "ABOUT 40 PERCENT OF FOOD IS NEVER EATEN IN THE UNITED STATES." Some statics show that 160 billion pounds of food is wasted each year. These facts are stunning considering about 49 million Americans experience food insecurity on a daily basis. They do not know where their next meal will come from, while at the same time, statistics show that we (collectively) are throwing away about 40% of the food produced in this country. This is amazing, and appalling. While not all of the blame lies with the confusing food dating labels we use, surely this is part of the problem.

A CNN Health article summarizing the issue brief states this, "Most consumers mistakenly believe that expiration dates on food indicate how safe the food is to consume, when these dates actually aren't related to the risk of food poisoning or foodborne illness." In other words, food doesn't cease becoming food after some date stamped on the packaging, nor does it mean the food becomes unsafe. The date most likely just means the food has reached its peak freshness date. For quite some time after such a date, the food is still safe and quite edible. (The CNN article can be found at

Finally, a quote from the Food and Drug Administration website (, "With the exception of infant formula, the laws that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administers do not preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label. FDA does not require food firms to place "expired by", "use by" or "best before" dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer." And, based on the NRDC report, manufacturers place those dates on products mainly for the purpose of expressing the peak freshness of the product.

It's important to understand what these dates mean, or don't mean, when we, as non-profit agencies who are trying to put food in the hands of those who are hungry, try to discern how best to do that. If you have any questions about this matter and how it relates to the Midwest Food Bank (GA Division) and our mission, please do not hesitate to contact us. We welcome your feedback, comments and suggestions. 770-486-1103,

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