Don't Worry So Much About Expiration Dates

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As the recent spat in Washington over how the feds should be allocating money for the SNAP program has shown, Americans are currently having a tough time putting food on their tables. But there may be a partial solution that's been under our noses this entire time:

Stop throwing out so much food!

According to a new study by Harvard and the Natural Resources Defense Council, consumers have not exactly been the best and brightest when it comes to reading the expiration date labels on their food packaging. For instance, you know that "sell by" date on the label? The one directed towards grocery stores as to alert them when the item needs to leave their shelves in order to make room for the new goods? 90% of consumers have been viewing that as an "expired" date, simply throwing their food into the trash when that day comes. (Same goes for "best before" labels.)

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Add all of that unnecessary garbage up, and it comes out to roughly 160 billion tons of edible food each year thrown into the trash.

A few folks around the country have seen this ridiculous waste and are trying to do something about it. The group Gather Baltimore located in -- well, you can put that together -- have been scavenging their city's farmers' markets and produce distributors for edible discards in order to feed the poor. And former Trader Joe's president Doug Rauch is starting his own store in the Boston area that will sell "expired," yet still perfectly good, food at a low cost. (Rauch sees this as a healthy alternative to the cheap junk food that's currently contaminating the city.)

Unfortunately, these are both small-scale solutions. For any significant long-lasting change to take place, something needs to happen on a much larger scale. Those behind the Harvard study recommend change coming from the top down:

The authors recommended that "sell-by" dates be invisible to consumers so they cannot be misinterpreted as safety labels; that a clear, uniform date label system be established; and that "smart labels" that rely on technology to provide food safety information be used more frequently.

However, as is usually the case, for true change to happen quickly, it will need to come from the bottom up. It's not as if the higher-ups at Big Food -- and thusly their lobbyists in Washington -- really mind that consumers are tossing their products into the garbage. The more that ends up trashed, the more people will need to buy in order to replenish their fridge. Waste, to them, isn't a problem. It's pure profit. Which means that the problem falls on us, the consumers, to solve. That starts with doing our due diligence when noticing the date on the carton is for yesterday:

"Consumers need to take that extra minute to actually look at their food and smell their food and make an assessment."

And if "doing your part" to help save the environment by eliminating some of the world's waste doesn't get you going, just think about how much money you're saving. Think about it like this: If you spend $50 at the grocery store and end up throwing away the standard percentage of food waste for America (40%), every time you get home from the store you're essentially ripping up a $20 bill. Or, this: The average American spends $151 a week in food. Multiply that over 52 weeks, multiply that by the aforementioned 40% that's tossed out, and you're talking about casually discarding $3,140 a year.

$3,140 a year.

That's the ballpark cost these silly expiration date labels are costing the average person. So until those labels change, save yourself some money. Don't be average anymore.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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