How Food Manufacturers Choose Expiration Dates and What They Really Mean
Nobody wants to serve spoiled food to their families. Conversely, consumers don’t want to waste food unnecessarily, but we certainly do. The USDA estimates that Americans waste the equivalent of $ 162 billion in food annually at the retail and consumer levels. Many of these foods are thrown away while still being safe to consume.
In part, these losses are due to the fact that consumers do not understand when the expiration date and the expiration date are indicated on the packaging of food products. Most US consumers report checking the date before purchasing or consuming a product, although we don’t seem to understand very well what the dates tell us. “Sell”, “best if used”, “use” – they all mean different things . Contrary to popular belief, the current food dating system is not designed to help us determine when something in the refrigerator has gone from edible to inedible.
At this time, food companies are not required to use a single system to determine what type of date to put on their food, how to determine the date to be listed, or even if they need to put a date on their product at all. The 2016 Food Labeling Act , now before Congress, seeks to improve the situation by clearly distinguishing between foods that may have passed the peak but are still acceptable and foods that are unsafe.
Aside from labeling issues, how are these dates generated at all? Food manufacturers, especially small companies just starting their food business, often don’t know what dates to put on their products. But manufacturers have several ways – both art and science – of figuring out how long their products will be safe to eat.
One study found that 20 percent of food wasted in UK households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. If we apply the same estimate to the United States, the average family of four loses $ 275- $ 455 a year to unnecessary food .
Because of the mistaken concern about food safety, 91 percent of consumers sometimes throw away food according to the “best before” date, which is not really related to the safety of the product. Sell Until dates are actually meant to let stores know how to update their inventory.
A 2011 survey by the Food Marketing Institute found that among their food safety actions, 37 percent of consumers reported that they throw away food “every time” it’s past its expiration date, even though the date only means “ maximum quality “. as defined by the manufacturer.
The best we can get from the dates currently listed on food is a general idea of how long that particular item has been on the market. They don’t tell consumers when a product goes from safe to unsafe .
This is how the producers come up with these dates in the first place.
Figuring out when food has gone bad
The shelf life of a food product is determined by many factors, both in terms of safety and quality. What usually helps food last longer? Lower moisture content, higher acidity, higher sugar or salt content. Manufacturers can also heat or irradiate food , use other processing methods, or add preservatives such as benzoates to keep food safe and fresh for longer.
But no matter the ingredients, additives, or treatments, no food lasts forever. Companies need to define a safe shelf life for a product.
Larger food companies may conduct microbial testing on foods. The researchers add a pathogenic (one that makes people sick) microorganism that is of concern for this particular product. For example, they can add Listeria moncytogenes to chilled deli meats. This bacterium causes listeriosis , a serious infection of particular concern in pregnant women, the elderly, and young children.
Researchers then store the contaminated food in conditions that might occur during transport, storage, in the store and in consumer homes. They think about temperature, rough handling, and so on.
Each harmful microorganism has its own infectious dose or amount of that organism from which people can get sick. After various periods of storage, researchers test the product to determine when the levels of microorganisms present are likely to be too high for safety.
Based on the expiration date determined in the problem research, the company can then label the product with a “use-before” date, which ensures that people will consume the product long before it is no longer safe. Companies usually set a date at least a few days before product testing has shown that the product will no longer be safe. But there is no standard for the length of this “safety factor”; set at the discretion of the manufacturer.
Another option for food companies is to use mathematical modeling tools developed from the results of numerous previous studies of the problem. The company can enter information such as the specific type of product, moisture and acidity levels, and the expected storage temperature into the “calculator”. The approximate period during which the product must be safe under these conditions is found out.
Companies can also perform what is called a static test. They store their product for an extended period of time under typical conditions that the product may encounter during transport, storage, in the store and in consumer homes. This time, they don’t add any additional microorganisms.
They simply take samples of the product periodically to check its safety and quality, including physical, chemical, microbiological and sensory (taste and smell) changes. When the company has set the maximum possible shelf life of a product to ensure safety and quality, they will label the product with a date slightly earlier to ensure it will be consumed long before it becomes unsafe or not of the best quality. …
Companies can also store product in dedicated storage chambers that monitor temperature, oxygen concentration, and other factors to accelerate deterioration so that the expected shelf life can be determined more quickly (called expedited testing). Based on the conditions used for testing, the company would then calculate the actual shelf life based on the formulas using the estimated shelf life from the rapid test.
Smaller companies may date their product based on the shelf life they estimate their competitors are using, or they may use reference materials or ask food safety experts for advice on the date to put on their product. …
Even the best dates are just recommendations.
Consumers themselves hold much of food safety in their own hands. They need to safely handle food after purchasing it, including keeping food hygienic and at the correct temperature. For example, do not let food that needs to be refrigerated exceed 40 ℉ for more than two hours.
If a product has an expiration date on the packaging, consumers should keep track of that date to determine when to use or freeze it. If the packaging has an expiration date or no date, consumers should follow the shelf life guidelines for foods stored in the refrigerator or freezer or cabinet .
And use common sense. If something has visible mold, an unpleasant odor, can swelling, or other similar signs, the deterioration could indicate the presence of dangerous microorganisms. In such cases, use the rule “When in doubt, discard”. Even what looks and smells normal has the potential to be unsafe to consume, no matter what the label says.