The Tradeoff of "Sell By" Dates, Food Waste, and Food Safety

Readers: I might be posting a bit sporadically over the next few weeks. I'm still kind of recovering from last month's 29 straight days of new recipes.

Why do we require "sell by" dates on food?

Well, ostensibly, it's to protect consumers. Nobody wants themselves or their loved ones to become sickened--or worse, killed--by food that's past its prime.

Unfortunately, greater safety usually involves tradeoffs. We could require perfectly safe cars, for example, but they would cost $infinity (and probably get really really bad gas mileage). Likewise, we could make our food supply perfectly safe, but we'd end up requiring food distributors and retailers to date food so conservatively that they'd be forced to throw out a nauseatingly high percentage of it.

This will make food prices go up. A lot. It's an obvious tradeoff, because farmers, transportation and delivery companies and the entire food retailing industry will need to recoup the cost of a far greater level of food waste.

And then there's the planet to think about. From an environmental standpoint, there's nothing more wasteful than using up perfectly good land to plant and grow food, then using energy to harvest it and take it to market... just so you can later throw that food away and have it decompose in a dumpster or landfill and give off still more greenhouse gases.

Worst of all, imagine requiring the disposal of food when there are people in our communities who might need that food to survive. All because of some dates and numbers somebody stamped on the outside of the package.

So, readers, where do you place your priorities? Towards food safety? Or towards minimizing food waste?

Do you think we should place relatively short term sell-by dates on food? Or are you willing to trust food consumers with some degree of agency and choice in deciding for themselves what foods are past their prime or not?

Or, do you think, as Ralph Nader so revealingly said, "the consumer must be protected at all times from his own indiscretion and vanity"--and therefore we consumers must defer to regulators and the government on this question?

If we choose the latter, who then do we go to to solve the problem of food waste? To the same regulators who inadvertently created the problem by requiring stringent sell by dates in the first place?

Share your thoughts!

Read Next: When Do You Throw Out Food? A Question for Readers

The inspiration for today's post came from a letter to the editor in an Australian newspaper, which I featured a few weeks ago in a Friday Links post.

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Anonymous said...

secondary question - isn't there more waste at home - forgetting that you purchased cheese until you find a green brick at the back of the fridge, forgetting about or just not eating left-overs, ruined attempts at cooking...

chacha1 said...

I think most "sell-by" dates err on the side of caution. Even most "use-by" dates do. Most manufactured, shelf-stable foods don't need a use-by date at all, let alone a sell-by date; they can safely last for years in their airtight plastic or metal packaging.

Food that truly is no good to consume usually manifests itself in very obvious ways: it looks and/or smells nothing like what it is. E.g. there is no scenario in which wholesome meat, or soft dairy products, should be green and smelling like fermented fish heads. (Disclaimer: Everyone I know is fearless about trimming mold off of firm cheese, and no-one I know has ever suffered for it.)

I suspect that elsewhere in the world, where the citizenry do not expect a state of airbrushed perfection from every person, place, or thing, a lot less food gets thrown out than it does here in the trivia-obsessed U.S.A. People discard perfectly good salad greens because they were slightly wilted ... or toss out bottled ground spices that still smell spicy just because they've heard you shouldn't keep them for more than X months. :-)

As with many things, a little early-in-life education (about what constitutes healthy food, how to choose it, and how to store it) would go a long way.

Melissa said...

I definitely lean more toward avoiding waste. I keep things long past their sell by date and they smell and taste just fine! I think if we all used our common sense a bit more, we could cut food waste significantly.

And I guess that's not to say we shouldn't have sell by dates. But I do think they are too conservative.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the insights.

I think all three of you are onto something: Knowing that sell-by dates are by definition conservative tells you that you don't have to just... throw out the food because of the date. At least *check* to see the food is still good--very likely it still will be. That way we can reduce food waste at home and save money too.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post as always Daniel.

There was also a segment on John Oliver's program on this issue on Sunday: