At least one death, 22 hospitalizations and an ice cream recall have been caused by the listeria outbreak in Florida.

Humans get sick from eating contaminated food or unpasteurized dairy products. Birth defects can be caused by listeria. Food poisoning is the third leading cause of death in the US.

People look at the dates on food packaging to avoid unseen food dangers. "best by," "use by," "best if used before," "best if used by," "guaranteed fresh until," and even a "born on" label apply to some beer.

The date at which a food should be thrown in the trash is what people think of as an expired date. The dates have nothing to do with when food is safe to eat. I am a microbiologist and public health researcher who studies the spread ofbacteria in food

A more science-based product dating system could make it easier for people to tell the difference between safe and hazardous food.

Costly confusion

American households spent 12% of their income on food in 2020, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. A lot of food is thrown away.

Almost a third of all food is never eaten, according to the USDA. The problem of waste seems to be getting worse because of high food prices.

Much of the waste may be caused by the current food labeling system. 20% of the food wasted in the home is likely due to consumer confusion around product dating labels according to the FDA.

The federal government enforces rules for including nutrition and ingredient information on food labels, so it makes sense that date labels are there for safety reasons.

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, passed in 1938, requires food labels to inform consumers of nutrition and ingredients in packaged foods.

The FDA doesn't regulate the dates on those food packages. They come from people who make food. Food safety science may not be the basis for them.

A food producer can survey consumers in a focus group to pick a "use by" date that is six months after the product was produced because most of the group no longer liked it. The same date might be put on the product of a smaller manufacturer.

More interpretations

The Food Marketing Institute suggests that its members mark food "best if used by" to indicate how long the food is safe to eat, and "use by" to indicate when food becomes unsafe.

Voluntary is the use of the more nuanced marks. Although the recommendation is meant to cut down on food waste, it is not known if the change has had any effect.

The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resources Defense Council collaborated on a study that recommended the elimination of certain dates.

The research suggests that manufacturers and distributors use "production" or "pack" dates instead of "sell-by" dates. The amount of time a product will last is indicated by the dates.

The FDA considers some products to be potentially hazardous if they have characteristics that allow microbes to flourish.

Chicken, milk and sliced tomatoes have been linked to serious outbreak of food poisoning. The date labeling used on these foods is the same as the date labeling used on stable food items.

Scientific formula

The only food product with a "use by" date is infant formula. It is routinely tested to make sure it isn't contaminated.

Infant formula undergoes nutrition tests to find out how long it takes to break down the vitamins and minerals. The "use by" date is used to indicate when baby formula is no longer good for them.

It's easy to measure the amount of vitamins in food. This is something the FDA does frequently. The FDA issues warnings to food producers when their labels do not match what the FDA finds.

Microbial studies, like the ones we food safety researchers work on, are a scientific approach to date labeling. A study in our lab might involve leaving a food out to rot and measuring the amount ofbacteria in it over time.

Scientists watch how long it takes listeria to grow to dangerous levels after intentionally adding the microbes to food to watch what they do.

Consumers on their own

Determining the shelf life of food with scientific data on both its nutrition and its safety could greatly decrease waste and save money.

Consumers could rely on their eyes and noses to decide if they wanted to eat fuzzy bread, green cheese or a bag of salad.

People might be interested in the dates for cold cuts, which are easy to grow. Guidance can be found at Food

The associate professor of global health is from the University of South Florida.

Under a Creative Commons license, this article is re-posted. The original article is worth a read.