“There seems to be a lot of confusion understanding food labels and their meaning,” says Ellsworth Buck, Vice President of GreatFlorida Insurance, Florida’s leading independent homeowners insurance agency.
Misunderstanding food label terminology contributes to a significant amount of food waste in the U.S. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports, the food industry and consumers are throwing out about a third of our food every year.
Making sense of confusing labels can help you save money while reducing food waste. Below are some popular misconceptions about food labels.
Food labels are not regulated by the federal government but by food manufacturers.
Food labels are more about quality standards, not safety.
Food labels are not mandatory on food packaging with the exception of infant formula products.
Food label terminology
The FDA would like the food industry to adopt, “best if used by” terminology to help consumers better understand that they do not have to throw out food so soon. Listed are some current labels found on food products and their meanings.
Sell-by date– This is used as an indicator for how long a store can display an item, it helps to manage inventory.
Best-by date– This label is about flavor and quality, but you can eat it after the date listed.
Use-by date-Like the previous terminology, this recommendation is for peak quality, it has nothing to do with safety.
Guidelines for food safety
“Having an idea of how long you can actually keep your food, will help you save money,” says Ellsworth Buck, Vice President of GreatFlorida Insurance, Florida’s largest independent homeowners insurance agency.
Foodsafety.gov has tips to help you navigate how long you can keep food.
Canned foods-low acid foods such as soups, carrots, corn can be stored for 2-5 years, high acid foods such as fruit and pickles, for 12-18 months.
Dried foods-gravy mixes, pasta, rice and flour are safe for a very long time.
Frozen foods-these are safe because bacteria and pathogens cannot grow in food frozen at 0 degrees F or below. However, frozen food can get freezer burn, affecting the quality.
Refrigerated foods– all cooked leftovers should be used or frozen after four days. Use fresh eggs within three to five weeks, milk within one week. For more info on refrigerated foods.
How do you tell if food has gone bad?
Since food labels have to do with quality, consumers should rely on their senses to tell them whether food is spoiled or not. Check for unpleasant or off odors or taste, as well as swollen or dented cans. Discoloration is another indicator, however, the FDA says change in color for meat or poultry is not a sign that the product is spoiled. Keep in mind, even if food has not reached its sell-by date it can be spoiled. When in doubt, throw it out.