Is It OK to Stretch a Dollar By Keeping Your Food Past the Expiration Date?

If you're trying to make the most of your money in these hard times, it's perfectly fine to hold on to your groceries or leftovers for a while.

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Mr. T in DC/Flickr

Recessions have a predictable effect on personal finance: they cause families to tighten their belts. A penny saved is a penny earned, and so on. So perhaps it's no surprise that many are taking that advice and applying it to their food.

Food safety officials in the United Kingdom say up to a third of Britons are holding onto their groceries or leftovers longer than they should in an attempt to stretch their budgets. In a study of 2,000 British citizens, a government report discovered that many people have been ignoring expiration dates, using their powers of visual or nasal inspection instead to judge the quality of their nosh.

The UK government alleges that ignoring use-by instructions puts you at higher risk for contracting food poisoning. Obviously: if you're holding on to milk for weeks on end until it looks more like tofu than a beverage, you clearly have a problem. But should consumers really worry?

Much like the Pirate Code, it turns out that expiration dates on food packages are more of a guideline than anything else. Here's Nadia Arumugam, writing in January for TheAtlantic.com:

And even the Food and Drug Administration approves of outdated fare. The government agency decided that expiration dates are simply an indication of optimum quality as deemed by the manufacturer. "Foods can remain safe to consume for some time beyond sell-by and even use-by dates provided they are handled and stored properly," says Dr. Ted Labuza, a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. [...] Apart from baby formula and certain types of baby foods, product dating is not even required by federal regulations.

In many cases, the expiration date simply indicates when a food item has passed the point of optimal quality. Grocery stores will actually take expired foods and turn them into prepared goods sold from behind a counter. In short: this stuff is perfectly safe to eat.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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