Kane In Your Corner: Food expiration dates not as clear as they could be

Food expiration dates are not as clear as they could be, a Kane In Your Corner investigation found. Caption Food expiration dates are not as clear as they could be, a Kane In Your Corner investigation found. Caption

Expired meat is for sale in some New Jersey grocery stores, Kane In Your Corner found, as much as a month past its "use by" date. But is that a health hazard, or is the food still safe to eat? Experts say under current labeling rules, which are in the process of being revised, it can be hard to know.

James Coe wasn't happy about the raw sausage he bought at his neighborhood ShopRite store in Piscataway. He says he only realized after he cooked and ate it that it had expired about two weeks before he bought it.

Kane In Your Corner checked out Coe's story and found several expired raw sausage rolls for sale in the refrigerator case. Some had "use by" dates that had already expired three, even four weeks earlier.

Wakefern, the cooperative that operates ShopRite, says, "We make every effort to ensure are products are in code...When associates are replacing a product, they're instructed to inspect it. We're surprised this many were missed." 

Legally, however, ShopRite is under no obligation to do that. In New Jersey, with the exception baby formula and dairy products, food expiration dates are strictly a suggestion. Experts also say the vast majority of products can safely been consumed weeks, even months after they expire. However, raw sausage like Coe purchased is an exception.

"If he had asked me, I would have recommended that he not eat that sausage or that he cook it very, very well," says Dana Gunders, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which wrote what many consider the definitive report on food labeling.

Gunders estimates that over 80 percent of Americans throw out food prematurely, in part because the sheer variety of expiration labels on food products, everything from "sell by" to "better if used by", can leave consumers baffled.

Asked how a consumer is supposed to know what an expiration label means, Gunders told Kane In Your Corner "well, that's just the issue. The way the system is today, you can't tell."

Over the next 18 months, the food industry will voluntarily be simplifying expiration labels to just two. "Best if used by" will be a suggestion of when food will taste best. "Use by" will serve as a health warning, telling consumers that if a product is not used by that date, it should be frozen or discarded.

In the meantime, Gunders advises consumers to act as if those are the only labels that exist. She says "Use by" dates should be taken seriously, anything short of that should be taken as merely a suggestion based on freshness, and "sell by" dates have no meaning, since they are intended for stores and not consumers.

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