Food expiration dates are not met: a microbiologist explains how to fix them

florida bud of listeria has so far led to at least one death, 22 hospitalizations and one ice cream recall since January. Humans get sick with listeria infections (or listeriosis) by eating food contaminated with soil, undercooked meat, or raw or unpasteurized dairy products. Listeria can cause seizures, coma, miscarriage, and birth defects. It is the third leading cause of food poisoning deaths in the US.

Avoiding hidden dangers in food is why people often check the dates on food packaging. And imprinted with the month and year is often one of a dizzying array of phrases: “best before,” “use by,” “best if used by,” “best if used by,” “fresh guaranteed until”, “frozen before”. ” and even a “born in” label applied to some beers.

People think of them as expiration dates or the date that food should go in the trash. But the dates have little to do with when foods expire or become less safe to eat. I am a microbiologist and public health researcher and have used molecular epidemiology to study the spread of bacteria in food. A more science-based product dating system could make it easier for people to choose different foods that they can eat safely from those that could be dangerous.


Costly confusion – The United States Department of Agriculture reports that in 2020, the average American household will spend 12 percent of their income on food. But a lot of food is simply thrown away, even though it’s perfectly safe to eat. The USDA Center for Economic Research reports that nearly 31 percent of all available food is never eaten. Historically high food prices make the problem of waste seem even more alarming.

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The current food labeling system may be to blame for much of the waste. The FDA reports that consumer confusion regarding product date labels is likely responsible for about 20 percent of food wasted in the home, costing an estimated US$161 billion per year. .

It stands to reason that date labels are there for safety reasons, since the federal government enforces rules for including nutrition and ingredient information on food labels. Passed in 1938 and continually amended since the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires food labels to tell consumers about the nutrition and ingredients of packaged foods, including how much salt, sugar, and fat they contain.

However, the dates on those food packages are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Rather, they come from food producers. And they may not be based on food safety science.

For example, a food producer may survey consumers in a focus group to choose an expiration date that is six months after the product was produced because 60 percent of the focus group no longer liked the taste. Smaller manufacturers of similar foods could imitate and put the same date on their product.

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More interpretations — An industry group, the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association, suggests that its members mark foods “best if used by” to indicate how long the food is safe to eat and “use by ” to indicate when the food becomes unsafe. But the use of these more nuanced marks is voluntary. And while the recommendation is motivated by a desire to reduce food waste, it’s not yet clear if this recommended change has had any impact.

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A joint study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resources Defense Council recommends deleting dates aimed at consumers, citing potential confusion and waste. Instead, the research suggests that manufacturers and distributors use “production” or “pack” dates, along with “use by” dates, aimed at supermarkets and other retailers. The dates would indicate to retailers the amount of time a product will remain of high quality.

The FDA considers some products to be “potentially hazardous foods” if they have characteristics that allow microbes to grow, such as moisture and a large amount of nutrients that feed microbes. These foods include chicken, milk, and sliced ​​tomatoes, all of which have been linked to serious outbreaks of foodborne illness. But there is currently no difference between the date labeling used on these foods and that used on more shelf-stable foods.


scientific formula — Infant formula is the only food product with an expiration date that is government regulated and scientifically determined. It is routinely laboratory tested for contamination. But infant formula also undergoes nutrition testing to determine how long it takes for nutrients, particularly protein, to break down. To prevent malnutrition in babies, the expiration date on an infant formula indicates when it is no longer nutritious.

Nutrients in food are relatively easy to measure. The FDA already does this regularly. The agency issues warnings to food producers when the nutrient contents listed on their labels do not match what the FDA lab finds.

Microbial studies, like the ones we food safety researchers work on, are also a scientific approach to meaningful date labeling on foods. In our lab, a microbial study might involve leaving perishable foods to spoil and measuring the number of bacteria that grow on them over time. Scientists also conduct another type of microbial study by looking at how long it takes for microbes like listeria to grow to dangerous levels after the microbes are intentionally added to food to see what they do, looking at details like how the number of bacteria grows with the time and when there is enough to cause disease.


Consumers on their own – Determining the shelf life of food with scientific data on its nutrition and safety could dramatically reduce waste and save money as food becomes more expensive.

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But in the absence of a uniform food dating system, consumers may trust their eyes and noses, deciding to skip the fuzzy bread, green cheese or smelly bag of salad. People may also pay close attention to the dates on more perishable foods, like deli meats, on which microbes grow easily. They can also find guidance at

This article was originally published on The conversation by Jill Roberts at the University of South Florida. Read the original article here.

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