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  • Writer's pictureSave the Food Austin

The Hidden Agenda Behind "Expiration" Dates

I remember the first time I ever went into HEB, Whole Foods, or Sprouts, and saw a shelf that wasn’t packed almost full to bursting. It was in April 2020, a month before my 23rd birthday; over two whole decades, and all it took was a global pandemic. The thing is, that’s not surprising. Grocery stores, particularly supermarkets, purposefully keep their shelves full to the brim with food at all times because they expect that we consumers want to see full shelves; they assume that to us, abundance means quality. Therefore, they believe sparsely populated shelves means losing customers to more fully stocked competitors. This marketing strategy has become so prevalent among grocers that they plan for “shrink” — food they expect to be wasted.

Before a product is deemed “shrink”, it will go through an evaluation process; most often, this is determined by the sell-by date. But believe it or not, that is a marketing strategy as well. Those dates — sell-by, use-by, best-before — aren’t just kind of vague; they actually don’t really mean anything. Yet they lead consumers to believe a product has gone bad simply so that we’ll buy the same product again. In many cases, we’re just wasting food other people could use, and money we could save.

As you’ve probably heard, 40% of food produced in the United States is wasted; and every year, the average U.S. family throws out somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275 worth of food. Much of this waste is because of a label that is less effective than your own nose and taste buds at telling you when food is no longer safe to eat.

While we have consumers, grocery stores, and producers throwing away perfectly edible food, we also have roughly 42 million people (over 12% of the population) living with food insecurity here in the U.S. In Travis County, 17% of adults and 25% of children are currently experiencing food insecurity. Which means Thanos can snap his fingers all he wants, but it won’t make a difference because the problem we face isn’t overpopulation; it’s overproduction and under-distribution. Food waste and food insecurity exist simultaneously because we produce more than enough food but don’t distribute it equally.

Expiration date labels on food began in the 1950s; initially, they were just a way for the then-burgeoning supermarkets to know roughly when they should take food off the shelves. This is now known as ‘closed’ dating because the codes used on the packages were basically unreadable to consumers. Over time, guides started being published telling consumers what those codes meant. Soon after, grocers realized they could co-opt this practice and turn a profit by providing this service themselves. This is now called ‘open’ dating, where the food has a calendar date instead of an obscure code; the idea being, consumers feel more comfortable about buying food because they feel like they have more control over what’s going into their pantries and refrigerators.

The problem is, these predetermined dates have never meant true ‘expiration’, or anything concretely useful to a consumer who doesn’t want to consume spoiled food. There are virtually no federal regulations (except on infant formula); and while there are some state and local regulations, they vary widely. Moreover, they often rely on the food industry to voluntarily self-regulate — an industry which profits from the food waste and consumer spending caused by misleading dates.

Amidst pervasive food insecurity and waste, the performance of packing the shelves and the misleading (yet authoritative) ‘dates’ lead to bigger and bigger landfills and wider swaths of land made unusable by over-cultivation. And despite the environmental damage and human suffering incurred, this system perseveres because it leads to fatter and fatter bank accounts for food manufacturers who, in both the U.S. and Europe, have lobbied governments to let them decide what we consumers get to know about what we’re putting in our mouths.

There are three steps in this flawed system: production, distribution, and consumption; and all three can and should be fixed. On the production side: grassroots political pressure has to be applied to the government to get stringent regulations on ‘date’ labeling and widespread public education on what the ‘dates’ mean. Conversely, on the consumption side: until political pressure generates the aforementioned overhaul on labeling practices, consumers, primarily, should trust their own senses and their own research to make informed decisions about whether or not to keep food past its ‘date’. (There are some sources linked below that can help.)

The distribution side is Save the Food’s domain. STF works with grocery stores to make use of edible food that would’ve otherwise been thrown out. About half that food is collected because of the date on the package; moreover, instead of at least composting such food, without STF, retailers will usually just toss it in the garbage. Meanwhile, the city government, despite setting a city-wide goal of zero waste by 2040, has produced no ordinance or policy to incentivize food redistribution or penalize food waste. So to try and do their job for them, STF, at no cost to the businesses, has volunteers do daily food pick ups, delivering it to local organizations like food pantries, community centers, and soup kitchens. Each and every week, STF redistributes 5-7,000 pounds of food so that instead of feeding landfills, it feeds the people who need it most. To put that in perspective, in 2011, the USDA reported that the average American consumed about 40 pounds of food per week. This means that the food STF saves could feed over 100 people each week.

Save the Food’s current goal is to raise our redistribution rate to 10,000 pounds per week in the next 2 years. If life is a human right, so are the things we need in order to live, including food. Whether it’s a donation to STF, helping us out as a volunteer, writing to your city council representative to tell them to support an ordinance prioritizing food recovery, or just taking a second look (and sniff) at that ‘expired’ food in your kitchen, we can all contribute to reducing food insecurity.

by Neelesh Rathi

Sources/Further Reading on ‘Expiration’ Dates

Food labels and the lies they tell us about grocery store 'best before' expiration dates

“Sell By” And “Best By” Dates on Food Are Basically Made Up—But Hard to Get Rid Of

Sources/Further Reading on Food Industry Lobbying

Experts Say Lobbying Skewed the U.S. Dietary Guidelines

Food companies in massive lobby to block colour-coded warnings

Sources/Further Reading on Knowing if Food Has (Actually) Gone Bad

Before You Toss Food, Wait. Check It Out!

USDA Shelf-Stable Food Safety

Expiration Dates: How to Know If Milk, Eggs and More Have Gone Bad

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