Food wastage is costing Canadians billions of dollars.

The Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, a key component of the Hoover Dam Bypass project. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
The Mike O'Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, a key component of the Hoover Dam Bypass project. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

More than $31 billion worth of food is wasted every year in Canada. When energy, water and other resource costs are factored in the true cost could be up to three times that much (CBC News, Dec 11, 2014).

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency produces a Guide to Food Labeling and Advertising that sets out a “Durable Life Date”. The authority for producing the guide comes from the Food and Drugs Act. The guide sets out what items must be labeled and the format of the date.

It is expensive to throw away food. A family of four loses $1,500 each year on food it throws away. But the damage is global as well when you take into account how much water, energy, and labor it takes to grow, package, and transport the food that never gets eaten. What’s more, food that has been tossed is the biggest component of landfills, and as it decomposes, it produces the greenhouse gas methane.

What to do with food that has passed expiry date? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) web site says expiry date matter. Do not ignore it.

According to Wikipedia, shelf life is defined as the length of time that a commodity may be stored without becoming unfit for use, consumption, or sale. Most expiration dates are used as guidelines based on normal and expected handling and exposure to temperature.

Consumer Reports (July 24, 2918) says, “Confusion over expiration dates leads Americans to throw out food when it might still be good.”

The report says there are several reasons why we throw away food that may be good to eat – picky kids, overstocked pantries, or even leftovers that sit in refrigerators too long.

But another major factor is the misconception about what all of those dates on food package labels – “sell by,” “use by,” and “best if used by” – really mean.

Statistics show 90 per cent of Americans misinterpret the dates on labels and throw out food that could still be consumed or frozen for later use, says Consumer Reports.

That raises the question: If expiration dates aren’t a reliable gauge of food spoilage, how does a consumer know what to keep and what to toss?

Consumer Reports gives the following guidelines:

  1. With the exception of baby formula, there are no federal regulations on date labeling.
  2. Often the “best if used by,” “sell by,” and “use by” designations are just manufacturers’ best guesses about how long their food will taste its freshest.
  3. Supermarkets may also use the dates as a guide when stocking shelves. But the dates have little to do with how safe the food is.

It is a tricky situation. How confident would you be to eat food that has passed “expiry date”?

Here is what Consumer Reports says: As a general rule of thumb, most canned foods (for example, canned tuna, soups, and vegetables) can be stored for two to five years, and high-acid foods (canned juices, tomatoes, pickles) can be stored for a year up to 18 months, according to the USDA. Watch out for dents and bulges in cans, though. That might be a sign it’s time to toss those products.

Important thing is to be safe. Follow good food handling and storage practices. This will prevent unnecessary spoilage and ensure food safety.

The U.S Congress is trying to define what dates on food labels mean. One Congressman said, “It’s time to settle that argument, end the confusion, and stop throwing away perfectly good food.” In the meantime be safe. Buy what you need so you don’t waste food.

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