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The date on the milk carton says it's expired, but is it?

The date on the milk carton says it's expired, but is it?
A shopper checks the expiration dates on milk at a supermarket. Experts say the current labeling system is misleading. (Getty Images)

Think how many times you've checked a carton of milk or wedge of cheese in your fridge and saw that it had passed the date on the package. The typical response is to throw it away.

However, experts say the problem is often not with the food or beverage but with the system used for notifying consumers about the product's expiration date.

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"Most people think expiration dates tell you when food is spoiled or unsafe," said Dana Gunders, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "In fact, what it usually tells you is the manufacturer's recommendation for when the food is at peak quality."

The reality, she told me, is that the "use by," "best by" or "sell by" dates on most foods and beverages vary from state to state and are largely arbitrary. "There's no exact science behind this practice," Gunders said.

Legislation introduced last week in Washington aims to change that.

The Food Date Labeling Act would eliminate confusion over inconsistent labeling that is said to contribute to an estimated 40% of food going uneaten in this country. It would establish national standards for informing consumers when food is at its peak freshness and when it may be unsafe to eat.

It also would make it easier for businesses and consumers to donate uneaten food to nonprofit groups and charities, which would go a long way toward reducing hunger nationwide.

"This measure is really about common sense," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters at a Washington news conference. "The date is irrelevant to food safety."

He introduced the bill in the Senate, while Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced identical legislation in the House.

Pingree noted that 20 states restrict donations of any food with a date on the package that has passed, regardless of quality or safety.

"We could feed a lot more people if we weren't throwing it away," she said. "There's no good reason for not fixing these problems."

Their bills are based on advice and recommendations from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, nonprofit groups and industry representatives.

Berkeley-based Gunders told me the proposed legislation would clarify expiration dates by removing ambiguity from what's being communicated to consumers. Packages would say "best if used by," which would specify when a product is at its freshest.

It wouldn't mean that it's bad once that date's passed, just that freshness may be fading.

Packages also would feature an "expires on" date for riskier foods such as meat and fish to definitively show when there could be a health risk.

A 2013 report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic found that more than 90% of consumers toss out food once it hits the date on the package. Yet many consumers couldn't say what "sell by" or "use by" actually mean.

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Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food annually, the report found, observing that "the rate of food loss in the United States far exceeds that of much of the rest of the world, with the average American consumer wasting 10 times as much food as the average consumer in Southeast Asia."

"Misinterpretation of the date labels on foods is a key factor leading to this waste," it concluded.

Gunders cited the example of milk. Some states require a "sell by" date of just 12 days after the milk was pasteurized, after which it could no longer remain on store shelves. Other states mandate a "use by" date of 21 days after pasteurization to indicate when the milk will taste best.

"Milk is actually an extremely safe product," Gunders said. "It will typically taste fine about a week after the date on the carton. If it smells OK, it's probably perfectly safe."

Changes at the federal level, which would supersede state rules, are necessary because that's the only way national standards can be put in place. Without such consistency, Gunders said, it would be hard to get the food industry to play ball.

"There are thousands of food companies out there," she said. "They'll all make these changes only if everyone has to do it."

I reached out to some of the leading food-industry trade associations. Their position is that they don't yet have a position on the new bills but, generally speaking, they support efforts to reduce food waste.

For example, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. said her group will "work with retailers and other industry groups to reduce consumer confusion around date labeling." The organization is committed to "giving consumers the information they need to make informed decisions regarding the safety and quality of the products they purchase and consume."

Some big-name companies, however, already have gotten behind the Food Date Labeling Act.

Steve Armstrong, chief food law counsel for Campbell Soup Co., called the proposed legislation "a really welcome development for the food industry." Paul Bakus, president of corporate affairs for Nestle, said at last week's news conference that this is "no-duh legislation," by which he meant, I think, it would be totally stupid to reject such a sensible move.

Blumenthal said he believes his bill is worthy of bipartisan support. It is, although the current political climate always makes such things problematic.

This much is certain: Our current food date labeling is almost meaningless, resulting in vast amounts of food and beverages ending up in landfills or down the drain.

Blumenthal and Pingree aren't proposing anything revolutionary. They just want to make sure consumers have the right information to make the best decisions on behalf of themselves and their families.

That's the very definition of no-duh legislation.

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David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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