Food expiration dates might not mean what you think they do

(Photo: Allen Fairbanks)

Do you obey the expiration dates on grocery items? You could be throwing away good food. Recent numbers show about 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten. Researchers say that's equivalent to about $165 billion dollars each year.

Food safety and public affairs groups including the Food Marketing Institute say you can safely keep many foods for months or even years past the "best by" date that's printed on them.

The U.S. federal government does not require companies to put such dates on food. Manufacturers do so voluntarily.

George Young is the Eastern Regional Director for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. He said manufacturers "feel there's a loss of flavor" once foods go past the "best by" dates.

"So they will ask that the grocery chains remove the food from the shelves, and those chains will then donate the food to us, and we will do a quality check to make sure it's in our guidelines," Young said. "It's a shame we waste a lot of food in this nation because we're following these dates, when in fact, the food is good a lot longer."

Young said bottled water is good "indefinitely" as long as it's kept in a cool, dry place where the bottles don't become damaged.

He also said breakfast cereals and oatmeal can still be good a year after the "best by" date.

"This can of corn, if kept in a cool, safe place, one to two years past the date of expiration. A can of beans -- three years," he said, "as long as the cans aren't punctured or opened".

He also said unopened frozen meats, including poultry, can be kept for a year past the dates printed on them. But you'll need to check for freezer burn, foul smells and other signs of spoilage.

New Bern Piggly Wiggly shopper Sandra Mills said she often follows food expiration dates on canned goods.

"I'd rather chunk it," she said. "My husband says that it's fine for a year later, but I'm not in agreement with that."

Mills said she was "somewhat surprised" to learn that certain canned goods can be kept for an additional three years. That's why Young says educating the public is key to decreasing food waste.

"I think we've been trained that way, because there's an expiration date on the food, the manufacturer feels there's some diminishment in the flavor of the food... So I think it's just a matter of education that we understand that the expiration date doesn't necessarily mean it's bad food. It's edible food, and it's good food."

Another shopper, Vera Harvey, said she routinely keeps milk and eggs a little past the due date and uses a sight and smell test to determine if they're still good to eat. She said learning about the FMI's food extension dates was an eye opener.

"So many people need food, and we can all do something to stop the waste," she said.

To view the Food Marketing Institute's Food Keeper guide, click this link: