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.
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.
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.