O’Connor: Are food labels swallowing our budgets?

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

Something stinks in your refrigerator — and I don’t mean that moldy can of bean dip.

OK, I do, at least at my house, where I am the chief offender of hanging on to leftovers juuust a bit too long, blurring that line between when the stuff in the blue Tupperware has crossed over from casserole to science project to Category 3 biohazard.

Something else that fails to pass the sniff test — at least financially — are the “sell by” dates stamped on everything from coffee creamer to Twinkies. A 2013 study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that most consumers are totally flummoxed by the meaning of a “sell by,” “enjoy by” or “best by” date on a cup of yogurt or a loaf of bread.

There is no “best by” date on kale, however, just a “tastes even more like old lawn clippings” date. And that date was yesterday.

Put the ‘chuck’ in that chuck roast!

In most cases, items past their “sell by” date are perfectly safe to eat for as much as another week or two, or longer for shelf-stable foods.

Nonetheless, one study found that 91 percent of consumers at least occasionally throw out food that’s past its “sell by” date, and 25 percent of shoppers said they always chuck food that’s past the date.

Even worse, 16 percent of consumers said they throw out milk on its “sell by” date. This is ridiculous because, as we all know, there are two perfectly good, time-tested methods that guarantee you’re not drinking expired milk.

Method No. 1: Is there something resembling cottage cheese floating on top of your coffee? If so, your milk is bad.

Method No. 2: Is there a teenager on the premises? If so, your milk is gone.

And your budget is toast

Financially, food waste in the U.S. costs a family of four as much as $2,275 a year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average family spent $6,759 on food in 2014, which means we’re eating up as much as a third of our food budgets by not eating up.

One way to keep good food from meeting a bad end would be to clarify all the various freshness dates and to apply a uniform set of standards. Earlier this month, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced the Food Date Labeling Act, which would create a national date labeling system to eliminate all the confusion. The two Democrats also say the move would reduce food waste and simplify things for food producers.

Beyond people who toss otherwise safe food too early, another reason for food waste is simply overbuying, especially on produce, and parking too many leftovers in your refrigerator. I’ve found the way to deal with that issue is taking an inventory of the fridge before planning meals for the next few days.

For example, a leftover hunk of pork roast is going to get shredded, mixed with some spices and barbecue sauce and re-created as pulled pork sandwiches. Along with some leftover coleslaw, it’ll be a fine seasonal dinner. I even found some guacamole to go with it.

Unless that’s the leftover bean dip.


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Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

Brian O’Connor is author of “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”