It's happened to most of us: You pull a forgotten package of food from the back of the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, and peer at the tiny expiration date. Hmmm ... four days ago.

Does that mean the food will make you sick if you eat it?

Many people throw away food items that are beyond the labeled expiration date, and that leads to massive food waste, says the lead author of a recent policy brief on food date labeling.

Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food each year, according to American Wasteland, by Jonathan Bloom.

Many people are confused by expiration, "best used by," and "sell by" dates on food items, according to the study by lead author Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

The study reviews the history, current status and concerns about food date labeling, and offers recommendations for improving the system.

CONFUSION,

SOLUTIONS

The need for date labeling began in the 1950s, as Americans began to shift away from home grown and locally-grown food to more processed and prepackaged foods. In the 1970s, several federal date labeling proposals were introduced, but none passed, and states began crafting their own standards.

Pennsylvania, for example, requires date labeling on infant formula and shellfish.

Leib and her co-authors contend that the lack of binding federal rules for date labeling has resulted in a convoluted and confusing patchwork quilt of labeling by food companies.

Instead of telling consumers when a food item is fresh, the system "creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food's microbial safety, which unduly downplays the importance of more pertinent food safety indicators," the study says.

The misunderstanding prompts people to toss food they believe is unsafe to be eaten, resulting in massive food waste, Leib contends.

She calls for standardized food date labeling, and suggests a five-pronged approach: Establish standard, clear language for both quality-based and safety-based date labels; include "freeze by" dates and freezing information where applicable; remove or replace quality-based dates on nonperishable, shelf-stable products; ensure date labels are clearly and predictably located on packages; and employ more transparent methods for selecting dates.

Leib also suggests making the "sell by" dates invisible to consumers (they are irrelevant once the buyers gets the food home), and include more safe handling instructions and the use of "smart labels," which have time/temperature indicators.

But the Arlington, Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute takes issue with those recommendations.

"There are recommendations in the paper with which we disagree, such as the recommendation that retailer facing information such as 'sell by' dates be in code or invisible to the consumer," says FMI spokesman David Fikes.

"Folks who stock the shelves in grocery stores need to be able to read the dates as well and many stores are not equipped with the necessary instruments to read or translate the codes. We also find that many consumers appreciate seeing sell by dates as a means of being assured their grocery store is stocking fresh, viable product.

Fikes says his group also disagrees with Leib's call for more handling and safety information on packages.

"While we want consumers having this information, there are better venues to provide this kind of in-depth guidance than trying to get it squeezed on a label, which bears limited real estate. And as you can imagine, 'smart labels,' and the call for the development and expanded use of them, is a very costly item that would affect the ultimate cost of the product especially at a time when most consumers are looking for the best value for their limited food dollars," he says.

Fikes says his group is working on clearing up the confusion.

"We do not think the system is broken, and the industry is already at work seeking to address the shortcomings, which includes consumer education about what the dates mean and the best way customers can make use of them," he says.

A FOOD SAFETY

EXPERT WEIGHS IN

Martin Bucknavage, Senior Food Safety Extension Associate at Penn State Department of Food Science, says the dates are established by the companies.

"Expiration dates are firmer dates compared to 'sell by' or 'use by' dates. With expiration dates, the manufacturer is basically guaranteeing performance of that product through that date. We normally see this used on baby food," he says.

"The 'use by' or 'best by' dates are dates on food packages that a manufacturer sets that tells a consumer the date the product should be used by for best quality. While a consumer may use product past a 'use by' date, they should avoid doing this for an expiration date," Bucknavage says.

He advises consumers to use foods by those 'use by' dates set by the manufacturer.

"There have been press reports on the fact that product is good past that, and while that may be true in certain cases, the product is best if used before the date on the package," Bucknavage says. "Consumers should put more focus on rotating their food on their shelves, and buying what they are going to use in a certain period of time. Doing this will mean they are going to eat the food at its best quality. This is not to say that they shouldn't take advantage of food that has expired, but it is important to realize that the quality may not be quite as good."

So, how long past the 'use by' date can food be used?

"It all depends on the food and how that food was handled to that point," Bucknavage says. "I ate a bag of chips two days beyond the stated 'use by' date, and they were horrible. We have purchased discounted bread two days beyond the shelf-life, and it was still OK. Although there was some slight staling, it was fine after sticking it in the toaster oven and adding some butter."

Asked about long-term storage of foods, Bucknavage says that supplies should be rotated to ensure better quality.

"High acid canned foods (applesauce, tomato based products) will not last as long because the acid will begin to deteriorate the can over time," he says. "Those dehydrated foods in multibarrier packages have been touted to do really well over a number of years."

Recent technological changes have increased foods' shelf life.

"We see a lot of multibarrier packaging (layers of foil and plastic) being used. This extends the shelf-life by restricting moisture loss and reduces oxygen permeability," Bucknavage says.

LEARNING

FOOD SAFETY

Panther Valley School District Family and Consumer Sciences teacher Carolyn Rider tackles the date labeling issue in her classes.

"As far as food packaging and dates go, students learn that the 'sell by' date is really for the store to know how long they can sell the item to allow enough time for the consumer to safely use the product," she said. "Generally, 10 days after the 'sell by' (date).

"The 'best if used by' date means that the product will maintain freshness and quality until that date. After that, the product might taste stale, but won't hurt you. Expiration dates mean that the product should not be consumed after that time, due to risks of bacterial contamination.

"Of course the dates are only good if the food handling and storage was done correctly," she said.

Her colleague in the Lehighton Area School District, Natasha Brown, also addresses food packaging dates in her classes.

"We review food poisoning, and how to read labels, and talk about the 'use by' dates and when to throw food out. 'Use by' dates are only used for baby food and formula. As far as the 'best used by' dates, it's safer to throw it out, just in case," she said.

"The 'sell by' dates are more for store's knowledge if the item is not sold by then, it should be out of the store," she said.

Brown said she uses the websites foodsafety.gov and fightbac.org to help her students learn about food safety.

To access Leib's policy brief, go to http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/foodpolicyinitiative/files/2013/09/dating-g...