When I was a kid, my dad bought one of those pillow-sized bags of store-brand Lucky Charms to teach me some kind of lesson about consumerism, or deceptive advertising practices, or something else that was a slightly elevated concept for an 8-year-old. He waited until I’d polished off a box of the General Mills-branded good stuff, then refilled it with those lesser charms. I knew immediately and distinctly remember throwing a fit about it. The next weekend, he came home from the supermarket with legit hearts, stars, moons, and clovers.
A Maryland dad named Scott Nash is trying to teach his own family about consumerism, too, but he’s not using cereal from the bottom shelf: Instead, he’s trying to convince everyone that it’s OK to eat expired beef, past-date dairy products, and year-old tortillas.
Nash, who is also the founder of MOM’s Organic Market, told WTOP that we all waste too much food because of the ‘sell by’ or ‘best by’ dates that are stamped on pretty much everything we buy. “Some stuff is damaged, and that’s legitimate, and some stuff really does go bad. But a lot, most of the food that gets discarded is due to these arbitrary and confusing dates,” he said. “They are very vague. What does ‘expire’ mean? There is ‘best by,’ there is ‘sell by,’ ‘best if used by.’ I just think that there is no consistency, and that it is creating confusion.”
To prove his point, he spent an entire year trying not to be afraid of eating food that was “outdated” or that had “expired.” He did not die. “I ate some tortillas that were a year past date. Some of the meats I ate were quite a few weeks past date,” he said. “I ate heavy cream that was a few months past date. I ate yogurt that was seven, eight or nine months past date.”
In a post on his blog, Scott’s Compost Heap, Nash said that this yearlong experiment started when he found an old carton of yogurt in the back of the fridge. Despite the fact that it was six months past the expiration date, he made a smoothie with it anyway—and, again, he did not die. That led to a lot of other experiments with food that, honestly, most of us would’ve tossed, including butter he had to scrape mold from (Theresa May just nodded austerely) and romaine lettuce that had been recalled due to an E. coli outbreak.
The thing is, many experts agree with him—especially about how much those expiration and sell by dates contribute to food waste. According to a study published earlier this week, a near-universal misunderstanding of the dates on food labels is “strongly associated” with the amount of food we all discard. In the study, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health surveyed 1,029 adults about everything from how often they trashed food, their interpretation of food label dates, and their overall knowledge of the labels and whether they’re regulated by the federal government. (They’re not.)
The results were pretty eye-opening. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they “at least occasionally” trashed food if it was near or past the date on the label, and 37 percent said they “always” or “usually” did it. Raw chicken, prepared foods and deli meats were the most frequently discarded foods if they were near or past their label dates, while canned goods, cereals, and soft cheese were least likely to be tossed.
“Many of the results meshed with our expectations, but it was dramatic to see the numbers clearly indicating that those who perceived food date labels as reflecting safety or as being federally regulated were especially likely to discard food based on the labels,” lead study author, Dr. Roni Neff, told FoodIngredientsFirst. “Given how widespread these two perceptions were, this study suggests there may be a considerable amount of food unnecessarily discarded as a result.”
That’s what Nash was trying to say, too... except he was willing to eat old-ass yogurt to make the same point. Although it wasn’t mentioned in the survey, I’d eat outdated chicken before I’d have another bowl of those fake Lucky Charms. Those are terrible, regardless of what the label says.