The Disturbingly Inexact Science Of Food Expiration Dates

The Disturbingly Inexact Science Of Food Expiration DatesIt's an all too common ritual: A product in the kitchen passes its "best before" date, so you toss it. Trouble is, it was probably perfectly safe to eat — and you just wasted good food. This is a problem that's only getting worse. Here's what you need to know about "expired" foods — and how to make sure you're eating safely.

Because most of us no longer live on farms, we're utterly dependent on others to provide our food for us. We're now divorced from the manufacturing process, so manufacturers have to tell us when their products are fresh and when they're no longer good to eat.

This has led to a spate of labeling systems, and not all of them mean the same thing. Nor are they necessarily directed at the consumer. What's more, they're not centrally regulated or coordinated in any coherent way. For example, products can have "Best Before" dates, "Sell By" dates, and "Use By" dates — and it's not always clear who these dates are being directed to, or what information is being conveyed.

'Not an Indication of Safety'

Making matters even more confusing is the surprising revelation that expiration dates are not an indication of how safe the food is to eat. They're not related to the risk of food poisoning or the presence of foodborne illnesses. That, dear consumer, is something you need to watch out for.

Rather, expiration labels are an indication of a product's freshness. It's a labeling standard used by food manufacturers to convey to stores and consumers when their products are no longer at peak freshness. Foods that are on the wrong side of their expiry dates are not necessarily inedible — it simply means that beyond this date, the manufacturer cannot guarantee the standard of their brand's quality, including attributes like taste, color, texture, and so on. Simply put, those "sell by" dates are there to protect the reputation of the manufacturer.

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