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The Incredibly Wrong Reason Americans Waste So Much Food

Image: Malachy666 / Shutterstock
Image: Malachy666 / Shutterstock

The United States wastes over 140 trillion calories of perfectly good food every year. A national survey just provided a comprehensive overview of the reasons we waste so much—and one of the most common ones is based on a total misconception.

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Researchers at Ohio State University wrapped up a survey about why Americans are wasting so much food and published it today in PLOS One. Some of the reasons were no surprise. Most people ran out of time, bought a little too much in bulk, or simply thought that those apples that had been sitting out a couple days no longer looked quite so crisp.

But there was also one pretty alarming reason: the majority of people—over 68 percent—were throwing away food under the mistaken assumption that, once the expiration date had passed, eating those foods was likely to cause food poisoning.

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Food borne illnesses aren’t spread by old food, they’re spread by contaminated food, and food can be contaminated no matter how fresh it is. But underlying that misconception is an even more insidious one: expiration dates don’t actually tell you whether your food has spoiled or not.

Expiration dates are not scientific calculations, they’re estimates designed more for the use of grocery store stocking decisions than determining whether your food is still good or not. The only food actually required by federal law to have a real expiration date, when it shouldn’t be consumed after, is baby formula. For all other foods, government regulators are perfectly chill with selling and eating food past its expiration date.

In fact, the FDA tacitly acknowledges that expiration dates have little to do with whether they will or won’t consider a food safe. “A principle of US food law is that foods in US commerce must be wholesome and fit for consumption,” notes the agency. “A ‘best by, ‘use by’ or expiration date does not relieve a firm from this obligation.”

So how can you really tell if your food is spoiled? It’s pretty simple, and it has almost nothing to do with the date on the package. Instead, you can go simply by the food’s look, smell, feel, and, if it comes to it, taste. Believe me, the signs of spoiled food are not easy to miss, even if you weren’t looking for them.

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DISCUSSION

Eggs. Eggs eggs. What about eggs?

Here in California, a law was recently passed that made it illegal to cut a dozen-egg packet into two 6-egg packets, because, since the expiration date was usually only stamped on one half of the dozen-egg packet, anyone who bought the half with the stamp would be leaving a 6-egg pack for someone to buy with no expiration date.

Requiring sensible things like requiring a stamp on two ends apparently wasn’t considered. Anyway, the problem is this forces single people like me to buy a dozen eggs at a time rather than 6, and since I don’t make eggs that often, I’ve had to throw out a pack with 3 or 4 eggs left because I wan’t sure they were safe.

How long can you keep eggs in the fridge past their expiration date without actually opening an egg to see if it’s gone bad?