Food Rescue and the Truth about Expiration Dates
As a treasured White Pony Express community member, we feel it is important that you understand how a food rescue organization operates. We will share periodic articles that cover different aspects of the world of food rescue – and today’s topic is expiration dates.
Those of you that sort food in our Distribution Center are the key to our food rescue success. The “food culling” work helps us ensure that only fresh food is distributed to the agencies we serve. Your commitment to our standard – only sharing with our neighbors what we would serve to close family members – is exactly how we grow our reputation as a dependable source of fresh, healthy food.
Food labels in the United States do not have one type or a universally used system for dating perishable foods. The misconception around expiration dates is that as soon as the date arrives, the food is no longer safe to eat. Yet according to the FDA, this date is not a safety date. Instead, it is a quality date. This means that the expiration date is actually a recommendation about when the food is at its peak quality.
Here are some examples of commonly used phrases:
"Best if Used By/Before" date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
"Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. This is more of a guide for the retailer than it is for the consumer. It is not a safety date.
“Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except when used on infant formula.
“Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
The Food Date Guideline Chart that we use in our Distribution Center and is based on suggestions from the FDA. For example, you will see that canned foods are safe to consume up to 2-3 years past their expiration date, and yogurt is safe to eat 2 weeks past its expiration date. In addition to this chart, another source on food safety and quality is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ web-based FoodKeeper app, which you can access here.
The food we share with our partner organizations comes straight from our donation partners who have a surplus of food. This surplus is due to food that cannot be sold because too much was ordered OR it has reached, or is close to, its expiration date. Although the date on the item may state it is expired, the majority of this food is fine to eat and usually as good as the food still on the shelf. Our staff and volunteers help ensure its quality when we sort through the donated food we receive each day. Any food with a broken seal, torn packaging, or mold is disposed of and not distributed.
Here is a direct quote for the FDA’s website:
“To help dispel this confusion, the FDA is supporting the food industry’s efforts to standardize the use of the term “Best if Used By” on its packaged-food labeling if the date is simply related to optimal quality—not safety. Studies have shown that this best conveys to consumers that these products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly.”
An article from Time magazine further explains how dates on food items do not mean it needs to be thrown away: https://healthland.time.com/2013/09/18/is-your-food-expired-dont-be-so-quick-to-toss-it/
One of our most appreciated food donors is Starbucks. Starbucks recommends the following to partners like White Pony Express:
Food should be distributed within three days following the expiration tag on packaged food. This three-day period allows for its transportation and distribution. Food may be consumed after this date, but Starbucks asks that it not be distributed beyond the three-day period.
For frozen items such as frozen breakfast sandwiches, most items have a date sticker that should be followed. This food can only be distributed for the three-day period following the expiration date on the tag. If there is no sticker on the food, do not consult the printed-on expiration date; instead use the accompanying donations as your guide.
We hope this information helps you understand food labels and the work of food rescue organizations like White Pony Express. We have saved 15 million pounds of food from ending up as landfill while keeping people safe and food secure. This is in no small part due to YOU!
If you have any questions about food items, please don’t hesitate to ask the dispatcher on duty (925-322-0604 x1 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thank you for your awesome support!