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Where food is concerned, basic self-preservation pretty much requires you to develop a Goldilocks-type of attitude. After all: too much [salt/fat/sugar/whatever else] is bad for your health, and too little [salt/fat/sugar/whatever else] is bad for you too; in order to be healthy, you must eat an amount that's Just Right.

There's a related problem surrounding the issue of food storage: on the one hand, you don't want to risk getting sick by keeping food around too long, after it's gone bad; on the other hand, you don't want to waste money by throwing away perfectly good food too soon, because you falsely believe it has gone bad.

And in recent months, even organizations whose primary focus is keeping bad and gone-bad food out of people's diets have started giving more notice to the issue of food waste caused by erroneous fear of bad food.

For example: earlier this month, when the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) held its annual Food Safety Conference in Indianapolis, conference attendees including Emily Broad Lieb, director of Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic, agreed that America's food-dating system (more specifically, its lack of a standard one) might be part of the problem.

Oregon Live reported that the IAFP conference panel on food dating was standing-room only, and said that “The panelists, including leaders from industry, consumer advocacy groups, academia and government, agreed that the lack of a food dating system is a problem and not only for shoppers. Some manufacturers are confused about what to do.”

Lieb said “We talked to small companies [about dating] … They said: 'We don't know what we're doing.'”

A reporter for Food Safety News later interviewed Lieb about food waste and “expiration dates” on food packaging (though the interview is only available in video form; no text transcript). Lieb suggested that Americans might waste up to 50 percent of all food they buy (which in turn corresponds to a huge chunk of a typical American's grocery budget).

Best-by date

Check any packaged foods in your kitchen – canned goods, boxed goods, frozen foods – and most of them will have a “best-by” date printed on them. Many people believe that's the day the food suddenly goes bad, or ceases to be edible: if a can of beans is stamped “Best by Jul 14” then you must throw it away now.

Of course, as Food Safety News suggested in its headline, many people also call it the “expiration date,” and then presumably think, “Ah, so that's the date this food expires — or, worse, the date it'll make me expire, if I try to eat it.”

Except that's almost never true. On August 19, two safety inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture published an article called “SAVE money by knowing when food is safe” on the USDA blog:

Stop! Don’t throw that food away! It might be safe to use, and that will save you money. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, each American wastes more than 20 pounds of food every month. That’s about $115 billion worth of good food thrown away every year at the consumer level in the U.S. … While the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline would never advise you to eat unsafe food, we don’t want you to throw away safe food and lose money.

A lot of perfectly good canned food is thrown away solely because of the date. “Dates on cans indicate peak quality as determined by the manufacturer. So don’t automatically pitch a can with an expired date,” said the USDA.

Different formula for formula

However, there is one very important exception to the “don't worry about canned-food dates” rule: infant formula. The USDA said “Unlike other foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that infant formula be dated. Do not feed a baby formula after the use-by date expires due to concern about adequate nutritive value.”

The USDA also discussed what (if anything) dates on other types of food mean: frozen food that never thaws will avoid going bad indefinitely, so you hardly need worry about the dates at all – although over time, frozen “foods do lose some quality: flavor, color, and texture.”

The USDA also offers safety guidelines for all sorts of shelf-stable (no freesing or refrigeration required) foods, plus safety guidelines for storing food in a refrigerator.

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