Spiking food costs, surging inflation, shrinking consumer budgets, and razor-thin business margins have led more and more retailers to offer items at, near, or even past their expiration dates at extreme discounts. The health risks are not what they seem—and could be well worth the savings, according to Rutgers University in Camden researchers.
"The fact that stores are offering expired items is actually exciting news to the most deal-prone consumers,” said Robert Schindler, professor of marketing in the Rutgers School of Business–Camden. “Many consumers wouldn’t buy expired heavy cream at a discount, but they might buy expired breakfast cereal if the discount were large enough.”
Some consumers pride themselves on having the expertise to find low-risk discount items. It is a win for businesses as well.
“The retailer’s expiration-date discounting policy becomes self-promotion,” Schindler said.
How much of a threat is expired food to a consumer’s health and safety? The risks are actually low; in most cases, food poisoning comes from foods contaminated with harmful bacteria, which are thought to be present well before an item reaches its expiration date. According to Terri-Ann Kelly, assistant professor of nursing in the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden, the Food and Drug Administration does not actually require foods to have expiration dates, except for infant formulas, which are required to follow national guidelines and have “use-by” dates. The expiration dates on food products are the manufacturer’s recommendations related to food quality and freshness, not safety.
“In terms of the ‘sell-by date,’ manufacturers often use this to help retailers manage the inventory,” Kelly said. “Buying foods near their expiration dates can be a smart way to prevent food waste, but the main thing to remember is, ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’”
Regardless of expiration dates, Kelly continued, food safety depends on how an item is stored, cooked, or refrigerated. Foods that are not properly handled can cause foodborne illness even if the product has not reached its expiration date. Similarly, food that is properly handled may be safe after the “best-by” date has lapsed.
To sum it up, when a product is near or past its expiration date, it might be ripe for a good bargain.
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