Expiry Dates Are Pointless When You Know How to Cook

CC BY 2.0. Melissa O'Donohue

Food waste expert Jonathan Bloom argues that Americans need to stop relying on best-before dates and start using their senses.

For years, Americans shoppers have struggled to decipher the best-before dates on food. Whether it says “use by,” “sell by,” “expires by,” “best if used by,” or any of the other countless vague descriptors that manufacturers can arbitrarily stamp on their products, the result has been confusion, followed by rampant, unnecessary food waste.

Fortunately the Grocery Manufacturers Association has finally decided to fix this problem. It will create a standardized approach to food labeling that consists of only two options – “best if used by” and “use before.” (Read a more detailed account of this decision here.)

Not everyone is optimistic that simplified labeling rules will solve the United States’ food waste problem. Jonathan Bloom, journalist and author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food, argues that until people start using their senses to detect whether or not food is still safe to eat, labels won’t make much difference. We should not rely on companies to tell us when to eat our food. We should determine that by how it looks, smells, or tastes.

Bloom uses the example of a friend who ate pasta with a 2011 expiry date. Some might find this shocking, but as Bloom points out, dried pasta is supposed to last:

“The dried nature of pasta and other dried grains makes it very hard for bacteria to flourish and start the decomposition process. Even if the pasta had gone bad, that would have been clear from how it looked, smelled or tasted. The only non-detectable food-borne illnesses are salmonella and e.coli, and those don’t have anything to do with age. Rather, they come from contamination.”

The problem, Bloom says, is that we as a culture lack kitchen knowledge and confidence. Until we learn about foods’ natural life spans, how to store them, and how to detect wonkiness, a simplified labelling process won’t do much to reduce waste.

“Society-wide we need better education about food. A national movement teaching appreciation and knowledge of food’s origins would be more effective than one about preventing food waste because waste avoidance is a natural byproduct of valuing our food.”

My mother has always ignored best-before dates. She taught me to cut blue mold off a block of cheese, to scoop out mold from a jar of jam or container of yogurt, to pick through a bunch of cilantro or lettuce, taking out the mushy black leaves and using the rest. She kept milk that had gone sour for baking, tossed limp spinach into soups, reconstituted soft celery in ice water, and cut the rotten spots out of peppers, cucumbers, apples, and oranges. Even meat that was starting to smell a little bit, she’d slice up and fry in a hot pan. Maybe that was risky, but we never got sick.

It all comes back to learning how to cook – the same familiar message we’ve been hammering home for years at TreeHugger. Cooking from scratch on a regular basis solves so many of today’s personal dietary, financial, environmental, and ethical dilemmas, and the food labeling problem is just another example of that. Learn how to cook and you’ll never need to look at an expiry date; you'll look at the food, instead.