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Inflation nudges more Americans to ignore the expiration dates

Experts say learning more about food stability and storage is a net positive for reducing waste
Posted at 6:01 PM, Sep 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-21 08:13:56-04

Grocery store prices are up about thirteen percent compared to last year, causing many American to look for ways to pinch pennies.

Some decisions are riskier than others.

Almost half of Americans (46%) are choosing to eat food after the expiration date, according to a survey published in mid-September.

Of those, nearly half said they'd just picked up the habit.

"Americans are taking packaging recommendations into their own hands," said Jeremy King, CEO of Attest, the consumer research firm behind the new data on inflation and eating habits.

The survey found forty percent of Americans are buying less food due to rising costs.

Thirty-eight percent are cutting the "bad bits" off their food so they can eat the rest.

Long-term, it's a trend that could reduce the amount of food Americans are throwing away.

"People becoming more in touch with their food, using their intuition, and learning more about food stability and storage is a net positive thing," said Dr. Charlene Van Buiten, an assistant professor at Colorado State University's Department of Food Science.

"Maybe you don't want to eat stale bread," Van Buiten said, "but you can, and it won't hurt you."

Van Buiten said a key for consumers is to understand the difference between "Use By," "Best By," and "Sell By" dates.

"Sell by is going to be the date [companies] want the product off the shelves and in your home," Van Buiten said. "You can continue to consume a product after that date has passed because it's just a 'sell by' date for that store."

"We have 'best by,' which is not referring to safety, but is really more for quality purposes," Van Buiten said. "And then 'used by' is really the closest we have to a real 'expiration date.' Do not consume the product after that point."

Attest's research found consumers were most likely to eat potato chips and similar snacks past the expiration date.

56% of consumers said they would take the risk.

People were least likely to eat uncooked meat or yogurt after the date on the package.

"Yogurt is really interesting, because if we buy yogurt in large containers over time, you're potentially introducing microbes, you're introducing oxygen, and it'll go bad pretty quickly," Van Buiten said. "If you buy the single-serving yogurt, the way those are packaged, and the way that yogurt is produced in general as a fermented food that has a fairly low pH, yogurt in a single-serving container can actually last and be safe for a very long time past the best by date."

Van Buiten also offered advice for dealing with moldy or bruised bits of fresh produce.

"If it's a carton of strawberries, and just one has mold, I would throw out the moldy one and the ones it was touching and you're probably fine," Van Buiten said. "But in other cases, let's say a banana. If your banana looks a little too brown for you to eat in one portion of it, if you just cut that part off, it's going to be fine. That discoloration is not from microbes; it's really just a natural ripening process."

The drive to reduce food waste, combined with the information about expiration dates, could ultimately lead to changes in American grocery stores.

Stores in Britain have already adjusted.

"They are ditching best before dates from fresh fruit and veg," said King. "[Companies are saying] consumers should judge, and we shouldn't throw away food and create waste just because of our internal rules. So we're going to let consumers choose."