Many food pantries across the nation struggle with the same dilemma: what is the proper course of action for foods received that are past their printed expiration dates? There are plenty of things that need to be taken into account when considering the ethics and safety of distributing past-date food to families and individuals in need; it’s a complex issue, and every food relief organization has a different policy about the dates on donated food.
The date printed on a package does not always signify the last possible date someone can safely consume the product, which creates confusion about food quality and safety. Past-date food that is still safe to eat leads to wasting massive amounts of food that might otherwise be used to feed hungry people. How can consumers, donors, and food pantry organizers determine from labels which foods are still good to eat?
“Best by,” “sell by,” “use by” and more
With the exception of infant formula, the federal government doesn’t actually have any laws or regulations about the expiration dating of food products. According to the USDA’s Food Product Dating Guidance, “There are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating in the United States.” (“Open dating” is a calendar date printed on a food product by the manufacturer).
This lack of clear rules leads to the amalgam of different phrases found on foods at supermarkets today, from “best if used by” to “EXP.” Here’s a guide to what all of these different phrases mean (see here, here):
- “Sell by”: This is the last date when sellers (such as supermarkets and grocery stores) can have the item on their shelves. Manufacturers want consumers to receive the product at its optimal quality; therefore, food should still be of good quality for at least several days after a “sell by” date.
- “Best by” or “best if used by”: This date is much more subjective, as it measures the last date at which the food will be at its tastiest (according to the manufacturer). This date is not related to food safety, only to taste.
- “Use by”: Similar to a “best by” date, this is the last date when the manufacturer has determined food is at its peak quality. As with “best by”, this date is also not related to food safety, except in the case of infant formula.
- “Expiration” or “EXP”: This is the date after which the manufacturer has decided the food should not be sold or eaten due to decline in quality.
- “Packed on”: This is the date when the food was packaged. Pack dates are required by the USDA for certain foods, such as poultry, in case of an outbreak of foodborne illness.
Individual consumers should use their own discretion when determining whether or not to eat something after the date printed on the package. Some people outright refuse to eat anything past the printed date, while others are happy to eat a can that is three years old. With relation to donated food, however, an ethical question arises. People receiving donated food usually have fewer choices about what they receive than people purchasing groceries at a store. By giving someone past-date food, you are limiting their ability to decide whether or not they are comfortable eating that food.
The reasons for donating past-date foods
Many people encourage the use of past-date foods, whether by donating them to a food bank or reselling at a discount. Businesses that sell past-date foods include salvage stores and other models like the Daily Table in Dorchester, MA. Food banks and pantries all over the country—especially larger organizations which have registered dieticians on the staff who check all donated food to ensure it is still safe to eat and nutritious—encourage people to donate their past-date food (see here, here).
Food banks that accept past-date food often have strict rules about which types of past-date products are acceptable and how far past the date they will accept them. For example, City Harvest, a major food rescue organization in New York City, will accept non-frozen bread products up to one week past their labeled expiration date, but will not accept dairy products that are past-date. The Utah Food Bank is a bit more lenient in how long after a date they will accept; their policy includes accepting dairy products a few days past the sell-by date. Virtually no food banks or pantries will accept deeply dented cans, as the food inside can be exposed to bacteria. And, of course, food that is visibly spoiled, rotten, or moldy should not be donated or given to people in need.
Millions of Americans use free food relief services every year, yet as much as 40 percent of our food supply is wasted. The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy considers feeding hungry people the most important use of excess food, but many individuals do not realize that past-date food is often still healthy and safe to eat, and, therefore, they do not see it as “excess.” If more consumers understood what the dates on their food labels actually mean, there would likely be less food waste sent to landfills.
The reasons to avoid donating certain past-date foods
Not all food banks take post-date food, as many smaller, community-based pantries and soup kitchens cannot afford a dietician to check all food received. Without the resources to determine if past-date food is safe to eat, many pantries—including some mutual aid groups, faith-based community pantries, and other grassroots organizations—simply will not take that chance and will not accept it. .
Some people do not believe in donating past-date food because of their personal philosophy of kindness and dignity (see here, here). Everyone deserves good quality, nutritious food, no matter where they get it from—a supermarket or a food pantry. However, as mentioned above, the dating on packaged food does not always signify the last date that food is safe and nutritious. A blog post from Feeding America sums up the ethics of past-date food donation well: “When considering what to donate, think about what you’d be comfortable serving your family.” If you would not be comfortable eating something because you are worried about how safe it is to eat, then you should rethink the appropriateness of giving it to someone who is food insecure.
Policy and government opinions on donation of past-date food
Since there are no federal regulations that require food to be labeled with expiration dates, there are also no laws regarding the legality of donating past-date food. In 2017, the USDA sent a memo to numerous federal food relief programs stating that, “In order to ensure optimum quality, donated foods that have passed [best-by, best-if-used-by, use-by or sell-by] dates should not be distributed to program recipients.” However, this memo is not a law, and it does not regulate what is allowed by non-government food relief organizations and programs. Distribution of past-date foods is, therefore, not prohibited by the federal government. Multiple government agencies have recommendations for people who want to consume past-date food, including safety tips on how to ensure that the food they purchase or receive is safe to eat (see here, here, here).
In fact, there is legislation at both the federal and state levels to protect people who donate food from being “subject to criminal penalty or civil damages” should any issues arise concerning the healthiness of the food they donate. Should recipients of donated food become sick, the donor of the food is not liable as long the food is donated in “good faith”—that is, the donor did not intentionally donate food that would cause illness.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a report in 2017 that included many calls to action and recommendations to encourage donation and use of past-date food. A major component of this report was calling on Congress to “delegate an executive agency to be in charge of implementing and interpreting” the current legislation in place to protect food donors from liability, as well as a request that the legislation explicitly protect donors of past-date foods. “Date labels on food are generally indicators of freshness, yet many consumers, potential food donors, and state and local governments misinterpret these labels as indicators of safety,” the report says, and this confusion leads many people to throw away food rather than donate it. There are currently no guidelines from the federal government about nutrition standards for donated food, so in this report the NRDC called upon the federal government to publish food safety guidance for food donations.
If the federal government were to provide more protections to donors and more guidelines for the quality of donated food, it is highly likely that less edible food would be wasted and more of it would be diverted to households that need it most. Until that happens, think twice about your “expired” food before you toss it—it might still be usable by you or someone else who needs it.
In the news:
- This Man Ate ‘Expired’ Food for a Year. Here’s Why Expiration Dates are Practically Meaningless. (Washington Post)
- 15 Foods You Can Eat Past Their Expiration Dates (Insider)
- How to Tell Whether Expired Food Is Safe to Eat (Consumer Reports)
- How Long Is Canned Food Good for After the Expiration Date? (Food Network)
- Food Waste Is a Major Problem. Confusing Date Labels Are Making It Worse. (Stateline)
- Why This Family Ate Expired Food for a Year (Southern Living)
- Don’t Waste, Donate: Enhancing Food Donations Through Federal Policy (NRDC)
- The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America (NRDC)