When you are picking out your milk at the grocery store, what do you look for?

Well if you are like me, I like to look at the use-by date to try to find the furthest date, but how accurate are these labels? I spoke with Stephanie Clark, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University

To be honest, those “best by”, “use by”, “best if used by”, things like that- are for inventory control. For first in first out, that's really the main reason that they're there. They are a guideline for quality. But basically, food should not be on the shelf if it's not safe. So, it's not about safety. It's about quality. So, it's basically meant to tell the consumer that the product is essentially guaranteed to taste good through that date.

So, hearing this, should we ignore this date totally? Well not exactly says Clark.

The companies who process milk are going to they're going to make sure that their milk tastes good for at least a week beyond that date. Because they want they do not want people to have a negative experience with their milk because milk purchases are largely driven by the flavor the acceptability of that product. And if somebody has a bad experience with a milk product, they're likely to not go back to that particular product.

The standard that milk producers go for is that their milk tastes good for a week to ten days past the date.

When it comes to these “use-by” dates on food, they do have a different meaning with different types of foods.

Those dates are relevant to safety when it's talking about raw products. Raw products like meat and vegetables-things that are exposed to the air and don't have a hermetic seal. Those things can be contaminated or can naturally contain potentially harmful bacteria. Those are a safety issue but think foods that have been processed in any way are guaranteed safe otherwise they wouldn't be allowed to be in the marketplace.

All the misconceptions around what food dates means can have an impact on the amount of food waste we see.

The industry has not been very good at explaining what I just told you. And so people think that food goes bad on that date. Unfortunately, that is the mindset of people. They think that the food must not be safe anymore when it hits that date, which is absolutely not the case. It is a total misperception but most people don't know it and so by removing the date, you remove that cue that is that external cue, that confusing point, and it removes one point of confusion and people are less likely to throw away the food.

In the UK, one grocery store is moving to have people use “sniff-tests” so they are not deterred by the “use-by” date. They are doing this in hopes to mitigate food waste.

I don't think it's going to solve the problem entirely. Because people will question ‘when did I buy this?’ ‘Wow, I haven't seen this in a really long time, hmm, must not be good anymore’. So, I think people will still throw things away. I'm not confident will solve the problem. I understand their reasoning, but I don't think it's gonna solve the problem entirely.

So, what would Clark do to solve the problem?

I think a better approach is to educate consumers that what those dates mean and how we determine them.

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