There’s been quite a bit of conversation about food waste this summer. As a way of clearing up some common questions about date labels on food packages, let’s look at what they actually mean.
When browsing the shelves in a grocery store you’ll notice 4 main types of date codes on products. Each of these codes are for a specific target group and mean different things.
“best by” - This is date code is a guide for the average consumer. According to David Fikes, vice President of Consumer/Community Affairs and Communications for Food Marketing Institute, an item labeled “best by” usually means that the product will taste best by a specific date. However, the consumer may be able to consume it following that date, with a few exceptions.
“use by” - This is just another way of stating “best by” and means the same thing. Someone will have the best experience with a product prior to the “use by” or “best by” date.
“sell by” - When items are stocked on shelves, employees use the “sell by” date to determine if they can place it on the shelves for sale. Therefore, this date is targeting the retailer and not the consumer. The product will probably be just fine after the "sell by" date, but the store and manufacture want it off the shelves quickly to rotate in new stock.
“expiration date” - Baby formula and a few other baby food products may include a true “expiration date.” After the “expiration date” the nutrients in these baby-related food items may begin to diminish and not be beneficial for the infant. If an item has an "expiration date" on it, then it's there because of federal regulations.
The bottom line is that these dates have less to do with safety and more to do with quality. There are, of course, exceptions such as dairy products, fresh vegetables, and fresh meats. For these items one should check resources such as the Safe Storage chart we posted in January, 2015 or use the new FDA FookKeeper app.
A useful tool for consumers to check the safety of foods is a recently release app but he FDA called FoodKeeper. This helpful app enables consumers to look up the shelf life of food items before and after they are opened. The FDA released this app to help prevent food waste.
The noise in the school cafeteria sounded like a roller coaster line at an amusement park. The children were excited to be out of class for their 25 mins. respite for lunch. As I wait for my daughter, I noticed the familiar long line at the cafeteria counter. A lot has changed in last 30+ years in the area of school lunches. Children can choose from a variety of foods, they can select one (or more) of several beverage options, and they use a school credit account instead of cash (Don’t even get me started about teaching kids to rely on credit in 1st grade!). One of the changes to school lunches that seems to be invaluable is the importance of the date codes and freshness dates on almost every item on their trays.
In the fiscal year 2014, there were more than 5 billion lunches served in the United States.1 Of those 5 billion lunches, 64% were connected to the federal free lunch program.2 The statistics regarding school lunches show a steady increase year after year on the number of children who are eating school lunches instead of packing a lunch. When I was a child, I carried around my Incredible Hulk metal lunchbox that also doubled as my matchbox car collection carrier. By the end of the week, there was no telling what was in that lunch/car carrier that I called a lunchbox. Some days, I had no idea what the leftovers were, I just knew that we couldn’t afford to by lunches every day, so if I wanted to eat, I’d have to pack my lunch.
As I sat on the tiny stools at my daughter’s lunch table I looked around to see what the kids were eating. Most were eating lunches provided by the school. You could quickly see who had the standard lunch or the “upgrade” lunch. No matter if a child was receiving a free or reduced lunch or they paid full price, I noticed a several similarities right away.
First, milk is still the standard drink. Both the chocolate and white milks has date codes on them. However, 3 out of 5 kids at our table said their milk was frozen and were unable to drink it by the end of the lunch period. That’s not the end of the world, but it’s disappointing that the school didn’t seem to care. Second, everyone had a sealed fruit of some kind- applesauce, peaces, pears, etc. All of that fruit had date codes on them as well. Third, the meat (if you want to call it that) and the veggies looked like they were some version of a thawed frozen food- all of which have date codes on their containers in the freezer.
Why all of these codes? Of course, it make it easy for the kitchen staff to see what’s still edible and what needs to be tossed. More importantly, these codes help the manufacture track their products for recall purposes. One recall in Feb 2015 was identified as causing 60 children in three states allergic-style reactions. The swift recall helped protect other school systems and children from potentially harmful allergic reactions.4
Implications For Consumers
First and foremost, go have lunch with your kids. You’re making memories, building trust, and having fun when you go to the cafeteria. They won’t be young long! Second, understanding date coding on products is a relativity new skill for many people. Most of the time, simply searching for the inkjet code or stamped code on an item will reveal the suggested Use By date. There are other codes on most items, but they are usually for internal use by the manufacturer and are just gibberish to consumers. Third, teach your kids to look for date codes whether your children pack a lunch or eat a school lunch. There is nothing like cracking open a carton of milk only to discovery you needed a fork to eat the lumpy stuff inside. Looking at the date code could prevent a spoiled food from ruining one’s entire lunch. Date codes are there to read, take a moment while shopping and while preparing foods to find the date code. If there is no date code, contact the manufacture and request the date the item was packaged.
Implications For Industry
School lunches are big business! In 2014, the cost of commodities for school lunches exceeded $16.4 billion.3 Items that mostly provided for school lunch programs include” fruit, vegetables, milk, boxed snacks, breads (rolls, buns, etc.), frozen meats, frozen pizza, desserts, and more. All of these items must have reliable coding on them to ensure freshness and quality. Poorly printed coding can jeopardize confidence in a manufacture and possible loss of contracts. Manufactures, food packers, and food distributors must be able to have clearly printed codes on the items they sell and distribute.
Most companies what to do the right thing by issuing a recall if something is found to be a health hazard. Sometimes the recalls are voluntary others are mandatory. If the codes are smudged, poorly printed, or missing altogether the health of dozens or even thousands of children are at risk. No company wants to take on the risk of bad publicity of children or become ill due to their products. So the food industry has developed certain standards to help facilitate the prompt delivery of foods for schools and, if needed, immediate recall procedures.
SSI Packaging Group has been meeting the needs of food manufactures for decades. They are experts on ink jet coding, laser coding, case coding, and industrial packaging. SSI realized the need to be able to not just print these valuable codes, but also that these items needed to be able to be tracked with surgical precision so they invented the pakTru traceability system.
pakTru traceability, combined with quality ink jet coding, laser coding, or quality labeling systems, help ensure that products are accurately delivered within necessary guidelines. pakTru is a fully owned subsidiary of SSI Packaging, a provider of coding and marking solutions for over 40 years. SSI Packaging has been providing superior customer service and exceptional solutions-driven value to their many clients and is proud to expand their products to include pakTru. More information can be found at www.pakTru.com and www.ssipackaging.com.
By Dan Flynn (reprinted from Food Safety News)
Those of us who practice daily journalism usually make like cowboys and keep our eyes on the horizon for what’s coming next. But sometimes, one of us has to double back to check on something behind us that was left with too many questions.
That’s where we found ourselves in February with the strange twist out of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Through its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the agency disclosed for the first time that a 29-state Salmonella outbreak associated with cucumbers had occurred last summer (although there had not been any public notice whatsoever).
This was troubling. MMWR is “the voice of CDC,” meaning its house organ. The authors of this article had an exclusive because CDC failed to issue the normal report on the outbreak.
For the public, the response to the MMWR report was, "How is it that our federal government can keep secret for many months a 29-state Salmonella outbreak resulting in 275 confirmed illnesses and one death?" Then there were the cucumbers from the Delmarva region of Maryland, which were linked to the outbreak but never recalled.
We needed a volunteer to ride back and get some answers. My colleague James Andrews graciously agreed to be the one who would step back in time and check on the situation. This past week, he produced one of those only in Food Safety News stories that brought us to the investigators themselves at CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases.
The picture they painted for James is one that is plausible — the source of the Salmonella was not known until it too late to be of any use to the public. At the point when last summer’s outbreak was peaking in late July, investigators still did not know it was occurring. The public health detectives were not really on the case until late August, and they first suspected tomatoes.
James also exclusively reports that after cucumbers replaced tomatoes as the prime suspect, the investigators met with representatives from big produce on Sept. 11. The last onset of illness would not occur until Sept. 30.
By late September, once the illnesses were linked to a specific Maryland cucumber grower, CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still opted not to say anything publicly. It was their judgment that the contaminated product had all been consumed. One might say the investigation went on long enough that there was no sense in doing either a recall or a public health warning about cucumbers.
In 2008, public health warnings tubed the tomato crops of several states before another cause for that produce-related outbreak was found, namely Mexican-grown jalapeños. Tomato growers sued for damages under the “takings clause” of the U.S. Constitution. They essentially acknowledged that the federal government has the power to issue public health warnings, even mistaken ones. They just wanted compensation for their crop losses, but they did not prevail.
So, while the federal government is not out any money for FDA’s 2008 mistake, these agencies strive to be right before they act. Among the questions I am left with is whether they ever considered a public health warning or recall once they were certain about cucumbers.
It’s a pretty common occurrence for both FDA and CDC to use a late recall as the vehicle for getting a public report out while it still seems relevant. Once they were certain about the source being the Delmarva region of Maryland cucumbers, it seems like there would have been time to do that much.
Originally Printed April 5, 2015 in Food Safety News©