NSF International Survey Reveals How Confusion About Food Expiration Dates Can Impact Health and Wallets

Expiration date labeling on food products is a source of confusion for consumers according to a new survey from NSF International, a global public health and safety organization. The survey found that people are confused about how to interpret dates on food packaging such as expiration, “best used by” and “sell by” dates, causing many to keep some food dangerously long or prematurely throw away good food.
In fact, the survey indicated that one in four (27 percent) Americans don’t throw away food by the expiration date, putting themselves, family or friends at risk of foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. Additionally, half of Americans surveyed said they throw out food based on the “best used by” and “sell by” dates (51 percent and 36 percent, respectively), wasting both their food and money.
Perhaps because of this confusion, a majority of the respondents (64 percent) said they rely on the decidedly unscientific and incorrect approach of using their senses to decide when to throw out food. Nearly half (47 percent) use visual cues such as mold or a change in texture or color as an indicator of food’s freshness. An additional 17 percent said they will throw away fresh foods based on smell. This behavior can be dangerous because the germs which cause foodborne illness cannot be seen or smelled.
“With so many different types of dates on food packaging, it’s understandable that consumers may be confused about what they all mean,” said Cheryl Luptowski, home safety expert at NSF International. “Some dates are references for food safety, while other dates are meant to inform the consumer of the food’s quality or help retailers be aware of how long to display food. Part of NSF International‘s mission is to educate consumers about food safety, and our survey results clearly show that more education is needed on the subject.”
Americans who are confused by the different label dates can refer to the quick guide below and visit NSF International’s website for more food safety advice such as the Understanding Expiration Dates Tip Sheet and NSF Food Storage Charts.
· Expiration or “use by” dates refer to food safety. Food should be thrown away once this date has passed.
· “Sell by” dates are a reference for food retailers and indicate when food should be pulled from the shelves. Consumers should check to make sure this date has not passed before purchasing food.
· “Best used by” dates have nothing to do with safety. Instead they refer to the last date when the food will be at peak quality and freshness.
Other findings from NSF International’s food expiration dates survey include:
· Uncooked meats, dairy products and produce pose the greatest food safety threat when kept too long, yet some still ignore the dates on these products. One in four (27 percent) said they keep uncooked meat past the date on the label and 22 percent said they keep dairy products such as milk and sour cream past the date on the label. Thirty-seven percent don’t throw away produce after the expiration date.
· Behavior varies according to age. Those under age 34 were more likely to throw out foods regardless of the type of date posted on the package. Conversely, Americans over age 55 were the most likely to hold onto food past any date on the label, which is concerning if they are preparing meals for young children, pregnant women or immune-compromised family and friends. Consumers older than 65 may also be more susceptible to germs which cause foodborne illness.
· Americans sometimes avoid eating at other people’s homes due to food safety concerns. According to the survey, 39 percent of respondents have avoided eating something at a friend’s or family member’s house because they didn’t trust the safety or quality of the food. The level of concern rises for middle-aged respondents. Nearly half (48 percent) of those aged 45-54 will say “no thanks” to food when they are a guest, while 35 percent of younger Americans aged 18-34 will decline food.
· Men and women tend to throw out food for the same reasons. Overall, men and women have similar behavior when it comes to throwing away food. However, women tend to be slightly more cautious when it comes to throwing out specific foods that are past the label date (e.g. uncooked meat, canned goods, prewashed vegetables, etc.). Both acknowledge relying more on changes in appearance, color or texture rather than the date on the food package.
“Food expiration dates are meant to offer guidance to consumers,” added Luptowski. “Confusion about these dates can result in many people either keeping food long past the dates on the product or throwing away food prematurely. Knowing what the dates mean can help keep you healthy, avoid food wastes and save money.”
Date labeling on food products is a source of confusion for many Americans, according to a new NSF International survey. The survey found that many people are unsure how to interpret common dates found on food product labels, such as sell by, use by and best used by dates, which is causing some to prematurely throw away good food while others are keeping bad food too long.
The survey revealed that one in four (27 percent) Americans doesn’t throw away food past the expiration date, which could lead to exposure to foodborne pathogens including Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. In addition, half of the U.S. population (51 percent) throws out food based on the “best used by” and another third (36 percent) throws out food based on the “sell by” date, leading to unnecessary food waste and higher grocery bills.
Perhaps because of this confusion, a majority of consumers (64 percent) rely on the decidedly unscientific approach of using their senses to decide when to throw out food. Nearly half (47 percent) of the survey respondents admitted to using visual cues such as mold or a change in color or texture to help determine if food is still fresh, while another 17 percent acknowledged waiting until food smells bad before discarding.
Other interesting survey findings include:
· Americans are most cautious with dairy and meat products. The survey revealed that more than three-fourths (78 percent) of consumers will throw out dairy products, such as milk, sour cream, cream cheese or yogurt when the date on the label has passed. Similarly 73 percent of respondents said they will throw out meat when the label date has passed.
· Dry goods are less of a concern for consumers. Only one-quarter (27 percent) of consumers throw away dry goods, such as cereal, pasta or chips if the label date has passed. In addition, 33 percent do the same for frozen items and 36 percent throw away canned goods when label date has passed.
· Confusion varies according to age. Those over age 55 are the most likely to hold on to food past any date on the label, which could expose them to foodborne illness. Yet those under 34 are more likely to throw out foods quickly regardless of the date posted on the label, potentially wasting good food.
When it comes to understanding dates on food packaging, keep in mind that not all label dates indicate food safety. Below are the three most common types of food labeling found in the U.S.; visit our expiration dates tips Web page for further information about these and other types of date labeling you might find on food items.
· Expiration or use by dates – are the two types of dates that refer to food safety.
· Sell by dates – are references for retailers to let them know how long to display an item for sale.
· Best used by dates – are a guide to how long a product will retain peak quality and freshness.
Don’t buy any food after the expiration date. Any food already in your home that is past the use by or expiration dates should be thrown away unless it was frozen prior to this date.
Although some perishable foods like packaged salads and vegetables may display a sell by or best used by date, this isn’t true for bulk foods and fresh produce. In addition, once a package of food has been opened, the label date may no longer apply. For foods that don’t display a date or those that have already been opened, you can refer to NSF’s food storage charts for recommended safety and spoilage guidelines.
Although food product dating regulations vary by country, dates are commonly found on many food items sold in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, especially on perishable foods like meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
Food labeling dates generally fall into one of three categories:
Safety
These are the most important dates to pay attention to. You need to use the food item before this date. If you can’t use the item before this date, you should either freeze the unused portion or throw it away before the date on the label. Don’t purchase any foods past these dates.
· Use by – Most commonly found on fresh foods like dairy products, meat and packaged produce
· Expiration date – Usually found only on infant formula and baby food. Some U.S. states also require an expiration date to be placed on eggs.
Quality
These dates refer to how long an unopened food product will remain at peak quality and freshness. They are not an indication of safety, and foods are generally still safe to consume after the date has passed assuming they were properly stored from the date of purchase. Examples of quality dates are:
· Best before
· Best if used by
· Durable life date
Store/Manufacturer
These dates are generally provided to help a store know how long to display a product for sale. Examples of store/manufacturer dates are:
· Sell by – This date serves as a guide so stores know how long to display a product for sale. Purchase products before the sell-by date has expired.
· Packed/baked – These dates are mostly for store use to help know how long to display the food item for sale.
· Closed or coded dates – Found mostly on canned foods, these are packing numbers generally used by manufacturers.
Product Safety After the Label Date Has Passed
Although not all label dates are indications of food safety, it’s still best to avoid purchasing foods after any date that is posted on the label. If you have a product in your home that is past the posted “sell by” or “best by” date, it may still be safe to use or consume if it is unopened and was properly handled from the point of purchase. For perishable goods that display a use-by date, follow that date and either freeze or discard any unused portion by that date. If a product has a sell-by date only or no date at all, cook or freeze the product according to our food storage charts.
If foods are mishandled, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause food poisoning even before the date on the package. To avoid the potential for food poisoning, shop smart and run all your other errands first and buy groceries last so that you can take them home immediately after purchasing. Pay attention to product labeling dates if posted, especially use-by and expiration dates.

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