Most Of Us Throw Away Our Food Too Early
September 25, 2013

Most Of Us Throw Away Our Food Too Early

It may not be that surprising to learn that a lot of us take ‘use-by’ and ‘sell-by’ dates far too seriously, and a new study, reported by via CNN, confirms that the problem is even worse than we thought.

Around the same time I started basing my cooking on what I could see and taste, rather than what exact measurements a random cookbook gave, I also started trying to judge with my own eyes, nose and other senses if food is still good to eat or should be thrown out. Usually, it’s not difficult to tell, and usually it needs to be thrown out a long time after any dates stamped on the packaging.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any risk involved in doing that, and admittedly if I find something has clearly gone off or is mouldy I still run towards the door with it at arm’s length making some sort of deep, involuntary sound like I would if I was trying to throw out a spider. But it’s a risk I’m prepared to take in order to save money and trips to the supermarket. Um, I mean save waste and help the planet.

According to the study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, 90 percent of Americans throw away food prematurely, and 40 percent of food is wasted each year.

That’s an astonishing amount of food that goes unused, most of it unnecessarily. The major reason for this is a misunderstanding about what the dates stamped on food actually mean. We tend to believe that they mean the food will be dangerous to eat after that date. But this is not the case at all; in fact, the dates are an indication of when the food is at its absolute best. The vast majority of food will be safe to eat for a long time after that, particularly non-refrigerated food.

Beyond misunderstanding of the meaning of these dates, our caution may just be another part of our modern, sterilized society in which very few of us like to take any risks whatsoever, and would rather part with money or whatever else it takes to make sure ourselves and our families are 100 percent cotton-wool wrapped. Maybe it comes from the same thinking that makes us need incredibly massive and hardy jeep things, which look like they were made to cross the Serengeti, to drive around small urban communities.

You can see why suppliers and food companies might not be too keen to set things straight about the food/dates myths, too. For a start, by looking like they are concerned for us, they are actually concerned for themselves. If there are any rare cases of food poisoning or other health issues, they can say they told us to watch out. Equally, if we throw away stuff too soon, we have to buy it again too soon as well. Such is life, I suppose. Right, I’m off to get myself a nice cold beer from the 1970s.

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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