The Imperfect Digest

Educating and connecting our community.

The Face of Packaged Food Waste: Expiration Dates and Short Coding

The Face of Packaged Food Waste: Expiration Dates and Short Coding

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Food waste is bigger than produce! The average American wastes $640 dollars of food each year, much of it perfectly good, fully-packaged food that we throw out because we’re confused by or worried about expiration dates, which got us thinking...

What’s the deal with expiration dates, anyway?

Everyone knows about expiration dates. They’re on almost all of our packaged foods. You’ve probably thrown out something because it was past its “best by” date. One study reports that 85% of Americans have done so, despite the fact that there is no meaningful consensus on what “best by” dates really mean. Did you know that, with the exception of baby formula, no expiration date is required by the government? They’re all just cautious estimates by the manufacturer. While some products like meat and dairy can become unsafe if you hang on to them for too long, the reality is that most food with a “best by” date will end up somewhere between stale and boring, not harmful, and rarely as fast as the date might suggest.

So what's the difference between best by, sell by, and use by?

  • “Best if Used By/Before” dates indicate when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. 
  • “Sell-By” dates tell the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is also not a safety date. 
  • “Use-By” dates are the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as we mentioned above. 

What’s being done to address this source of food waste?

The good news is that things are changing. Packaged food companies are talking about standardizing their approach to expiration dates to more logical and less wasteful, and Congress is even considering a bill that could help end this problem once and for all. Our friends at ReFed estimate that rethinking our approach to expiration dates as a country could save close to 400,000 pounds of food every year!

At Imperfect, we’re looking to do our part by selling “short-coded” packaged foods. These are items whose expiration dates are still a few months away, but won't get purchased by supermarkets because stores are afraid that worried consumers wouldn't buy them. Keep an eye out for these when you customize your box and be sure to lettuce know what you think!

You can be a part of the solution at home by getting smart about expiration dates, checking out resources like the Food Keeper app, and thinking twice (and following your nose!) before throwing something away just because of a few numbers stamped on the side. Together we can turn this problem around!

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