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Expiration dates on labels only cause confusion

Ignore expiration dates, says one author, and use your eyes and nose to determine what’s fresh enough to consume.
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FILED IN:  Sustainability  > Strategy
     
As many of you may know, I’m a staunch defender of packaging, but sometimes we are our own worst enemy.

Certainly expiration labels is a case in point. Not federally regulated, and offering up a range of choices between “best used by,” “use by,” or even “sell by,” consumers are confused. If the store must sell by a certain date, how much more time do I have in my fridge?

An article on website Slate.com suggests consumers ignore the labels entirely and use their own senses to determine if their food is fresh.

“Food starts to deteriorate from the moment it's harvested, butchered, or processed, but the rate at which it spoils depends less on time than on the conditions under which it's stored,” says Slate.com contributor Nadia Arumugam.

Freshness dates came about as America was urbanized and consumers required more processed food. “In the 1930s, the magazine Consumer Reports argued that Americans increasingly looked to expiration dates as an indication of freshness and quality. Supermarkets responded and in the 1970s some chains implemented their own dating systems.”

The dates are also extremely conservative and author Arumugam suggests we have at least a three to seven day grace period after the “sell by” date.

Meant initially to inspire confidence, maybe we should get rid of the dates altogether, she suggests. “Expiration dates are intended to inspire confidence, but they only invest us with a false sense of security. The reality is that the onus lies with consumers to judge and maintain the freshness and edibility of their food—by checking for offensive slime, rank smells, and off colors. Perhaps, then, we should do away with dates altogether and have packages equipped with more instructive guidance on properly storing foods, and on detecting spoilage.”

I reported here earlier that one response to the recession in the UK is that 40% of shoppers polled were already ignoring the “sell by” dates to avoid wasting perfectly good food.

It all comes down to standards and uniform application—and probably some federal regulation eventually. Whether we are discussing calories, portion size, nutritional facts, point of origin or freshness, a gray cloud hangs over packaging labels. Add to that green certification and recycling information and you really get a messy label and a confounded consumer.

No wonder consumers are becoming more and more distrustful of what they read.

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