Contrary to popular belief, foods don’t “expire”; and most foods you buy are in fact perfectly safe to eat well past the “sell by” date you see on the label. They obviously may not taste as good because of a lack of freshness, but the notion that they are not safe to eat is generally not true. The whole idea behind these warning labels is to encourage consumers to eat the product at its peak of freshness and flavor, thus protecting the reputation of that product. And this makes perfect sense. As a food product passes its “expiration” date, it may get stale or go sour. But according to food safety experts, most spoiled foods aren’t hazardous to a person’s health if consumed.
Though some states require expiration dates on meat or milk, such dates on food are not required under any federal law. Yet many consumers look at this largely arbitrary and unregulated practice as an absolute. As a result, each and every day, a lot of perfectly good food goes into the trash. This wasted food is a significant part of the staggering 130 billion pounds of food that goes to waste in this country every year. Recent research on why people waste food conducted by SSRS, a market and survey research firm, found that almost 70 percent of those surveyed threw items away after the package date expired, thinking it reduced the chance of getting sick from eating it (an outcome that may be unlikely).
In part, this is why two of the most influential groups in the food industry, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, are now advising their members to abolish this labeling practice – specifically “Expires on” and “Sell by” warnings. In their place, the food industry groups are asking major food manufacturers and retailers to use two alternate labels. One would use the words “Best if used by” a particular date or the optional words “Use by.” This does call our attention to the importance of the language that is used in labeling related to how and whether people will act on the information provided. A prime example of this is how we react to the word “natural,” when it is attached to a product.
According to Consumer Reports, the percentage of people who regularly buy food labeled “natural” has increased from 59 percent in 2014 to 62 percent in 2015, and that number that continues to grow. While more consumers seek out foods with such labels, they might be surprised by what they’re getting in return. Studies show people believe a “natural” label means packaged and processed foods have no genetically modified organisms, no artificial ingredients or colors, no chemicals and no pesticides. Many believe it to be a verified claim. It’s not.
Lately, pressure has been mounting for regulators to do a better job of defining a term that’s yet to be legally described. It has prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take up the matter for review. Public comment on this inquiry is scheduled to end this May. The problem they face stems from the range of interpretation out there defining the term “natural.”
“From a food-science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed in some way,” Lauren Kotwicki of the Food and Drug Administration recently explained to USA Today.
The Food and Drug Administration does not formally define the word, meaning its use isn’t regulated by any law. They have, however, a longstanding policy that interprets it to mean nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to a food that wouldn’t normally be expected in that food. The problem is the policy wasn’t intended to address food production, processing or manufacturing methods.
Meanwhile, lack of federal oversight is leading shoppers to make value-based decisions using a term that is essentially meaningless. There are also lots of labels on food not even intended for consumer use. I’m thinking specifically of those stickers that can be found on most fruits and veggies in grocery stores.
A governing body called the International Federation for Produce Standards provides food distributors with this sticker process where each item contains a “price lookup” number. It identifies the specific fruit or vegetable but it also identifies something else – how the product was grown. By correctly reading this code, you can tell if the fruit was genetically modified, organically grown or produced with chemical fertilizers, fungicides or herbicides.
According to tiphero.com, here’s what you need to know about these price lookup codes to make them work for your benefit:
- If there are only four numbers in the price lookup code, this means that the produce was grown conventionally with the use of pesticides.
- If there are five numbers in the price lookup code, and the number starts with “8,” this tells you that the item is a genetically modified fruit or vegetable.
- If there are five numbers in the price lookup code, and the number starts with “9,” this tells you that the produce was grown organically and is not genetically modified.
It should also be noted that the adhesive used to attach stickers is considered food-grade, but the stickers themselves aren’t considered safe to consume. The sticker process is a voluntary one and is neither regulated nor mandated. You may not want to rely upon it enough to design your “natural” shopping list around it. But it helps to know.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.