09/26/2013 12:12 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Let's Face It: Food Expiration Dates Are Worthless

By Jocelyn C. Zuckerman, OnEarth

A few days ago, Ted Labuza enjoyed an afternoon snack of crackers with sour cream, which he spooned from a tub whose sell-by date had passed two weeks earlier. A professor of food science and engineering at the University of Minnesota, Labuza has been studying the shelf life of food for nearly half a century. He's written 17 books on the topic. Another recent Labuza feast consisted of chicken and broth that had been sealed into a can seven years ago. The result? In neither case was the doctor any worse for the wear.

Although most of us routinely fall prey to those dated grocery store labels -- chucking entire jars of "expired" mayo for fear of poisoning our sandwich-eating kids, for example -- it turns out that those designations are actually pretty meaningless. (Not to mention confusing. Who ever even thought about the fact that there are not just "sell by" labels but also "best by," "use by," and "enjoy by"? Not this consumer.)

In many respects, the labels are downright harmful. They impel us to get rid of food that's perfectly safe to eat, costing us money and contributing to the already massive problem of food waste -- an estimated 160 billion pounds of food gets tossed in this country every year. Discarded food is the single largest contributor of solid waste in our landfills; the methane it emits plays a large role in exacerbating climate change.

Most of us tend to push the issue of food waste from our minds because it just feels too big. But the labeling schizophrenia that drives it isn't an insolvable problem. Nor is it, like the ongoing battle between supporters of organic farming and boosters of biotechnology, a war involving an ideological divide. As a new report from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and NRDC (which publishes OnEarth) makes clear, all that's necessary here is a concerted push by two forces -- the food industry and policymakers -- to remedy a system that both agree is colossally screwed up.

It was in the 1970s, after most Americans had stopped growing their own food and turned instead to packaged and processed stuff (the origins and freshness of which they were unsure about), that food labeling first came into fashion. Despite the introduction that decade of several proposals aimed at establishing a uniform national system, none of the efforts was ever passed into law, leading to the piecemeal creation of what is today a fractured and wildly incoherent labeling system.

Manufacturers use two categories of labels: those intended to communicate among businesses, and those meant for consumers. Neither has anything to do with the safety of the food in question. "Best before" and "use by" dates are often simply a manufacturer's estimate of the point after which the food will no longer be at its best -- not when it will make someone sick.

Thing is, we consumers have no way of knowing how these dates have been defined or calculated, because state laws vary dramatically, and companies come up with their own methods for determining the dates. The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have the power to regulate food labeling to ensure that consumers are not "misled," but the only product they've done that for is infant formula. The result is a "a dizzying patchwork" of laws, as NRDC food scientist Dana Gunders puts it. New Hampshire requires the labeling of cream but not milk, for example, and although California requires labels, the state doesn't restrict the sale of products whose label dates have expired.

As a result of the mishmash of labeling practices, the average household of four loses up to $455 per year on food needlessly tossed in the trash, Harvard and NRDC estimate. And given the fact that 80 percent of the nation's water and more than half of its land area is devoted to agricultural production, the environment suffers from more than just methane emissions. (There's also a whole lot of water and fuel involved in packaging and transporting all that food that will never be consumed.) The labels present a challenge for recycling and composting, too: Because food thrown away as a result of expired "sell by" dates generally has never been opened, the contents and the packaging tend not to get separated into separate bins.

So should consumers just ignore the labels, à la Ted Labuza? Maybe, but it's also not safe to assume that all food is perfectly fine to eat. Food-borne illnesses often have no relation to age -- something fresh from the store could still be carrying a pathogen, the result of contamination from animal feces, polluted water, or a breakdown in safety protocol, for example. It makes far more sense to pay attention to such characteristics as discoloration or off odors. Our grandmothers, says Gunders, would place an egg in a dish of water to see whether it sank or floated. (Floating means it's time to toss it in the compost bin.) The NRDC/Harvard report offers a variety of steps that industry and government can take to reform the overall system.

In the meantime, a good place to start preserving your own food is by lowering the temperature of your fridge. Ted Labuza keeps his at a frosty 34 degrees, and he recently supped on a 14-day-old steak.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.