CHESTERFIELD (WRIC) - As much as 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. is thrown away every year. A big reason is those misleading sell-by dates.
Throwing away food seems unthinkable at a time when so many people are hungry and it doesn't have to be that way.
Fresh to Frozen on Midlothian Turnpike is a grocery store saving food from a less than desirable future.
Jessica Cason is the store manager and daughter of owner Junior Southard -- who has 30 plus years in the grocery business.
They buy up everything other stores no longer want -- perfectly sealed boxes of cereal that the company says should have been used by august 2013, slightly out-of-season snack cakes and more.
"A can of corn isn't going to go bad a month after the date," Cason says. "There's probably a lot of times you don't realize it's gone out of date."
Elaine Lindholm with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services says most foods are safe well after their sell-by stamp if they've been handled and stored properly.
The only exceptions -- grade a dairy products and infant formula which are required by law to have expiration dates.
"There are a lot of variables here," she says. "That's why it gets confusing for people."
The rest is more of a marketing ploy.
"Things like sell by dates and use by dates are used to demonstrate the quality of a product not the safety of it," says Annie Andrews of FeedMore. "Food that is very close to its expiration date or past its expiration date is the life blood of what we do that is the business that we're in."
FeedMore's Central Virginia Food Bank uses these products to help feed 200,000 people each year, following strict guidelines.
Meat frozen before or by the sell-by date is distributed up to a year later.
Packaged goods? Anywhere from 3 months to 2 years, depending on what it is
Most canned vegetables are safe five years beyond, if there's no damage.
"That's going to affect the safety of what's inside of it," Andrews says. "This date is just telling us the peak of quality. The contents of the can are determined by the condition of it."
The food bank carefully checks everything that comes through its doors. The same goes for retailers like fresh to frozen. Before they hit shelves, products are inspected, samples sometimes taken to reassure customers.
"If it's something in a can or a package, I don't worry about the expiration date at all," says customer Sally Byrd.
The store says it's never made anyone sick and the issue goes one step further.
Last year, the national food lab said it couldn't pinpoint a single safety incident that happened because a product was past its date.
"That's basically a marketing decision by the processor not a mandated label required by the government standards," Lindholm says. "A vast majority of cases of food-borne illness occur in the home because people have mishandled it."
Lindholm says typically user error, not the sell-by date makes people sick, making this a valuable resource at a time when the community and others need it the most.
"Safety is our number one concern but waste is something that we feel like we can keep food out of the landfill and onto the plates of people that need it," Andrews says.
Milk is one of the few products required by law to have an expiration date. Lindholm says it's definitely one to follow. Seven days is it. After that window, throw out any unused milk.
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