"Food Labeling Maze"
By Capt. Fred Davis
Published: Saturday, May 20, 2017

Does food date labeling drive anyone crazy?

I just think it’s important to have the best advice available before I eat something. It was my understanding the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had made requirements of all food producers to begin a uniform labeling that would guide consumers in purchasing their goods.

I decided to see how they were doing with that directive. I began checking out products in my refrigerator and low and behold, no uniformity there. Here is a sample of what I found. The very first item was totally puzzling.

Regular ricotta cheese: “Use” by date 6-3-17 is stamped on the bottom. Max “fresh” three to five days after opening, and right under that message, “best” if “used” by date stamped.

So we have three messages: use, fresh and best — and total confusion about whether it is actually OK to eat it until June 3. The next item was also in the dairy area.

Non-dairy, lactaid cottage cheese: Just a stamp on the bottom 4-3-17. There was no “sell” or “use by” message at all.

Dairy free yogurt alternative, with a list of 20 ingredients besides the yogurt, also just had a stamp of 5-9-17. At least there is an extra month before I need to eat it. Regular sour cream and cream cheese had “sell” dates stamped but no “use by” suggestions. Single slice cheese product and Parmesan cheese both had a date stamp of 5-8-17 but also said, “best” if “used” by date stamped. I was not impressed with the EB eggs labeling effort. They are the eggs that are supposed to be so much better for us. They announce that their eggs “stay fresh” longer, but the date on the carton was obscured by other labeling.

By now everyone reading this thinks I have too much time on my hands if I can drag stuff out of the refrigerator and examine dates. That’s the problem: No one pays any attention to the dates and all the food producers know it.

Let’s take a look in the cupboard. A can of cranberry sauce carried a stamped date of 8-4-18. Why would it last 16 months? All it has listed is cranberries, water, high fructose syrup and corn syrup. Same thing with the jar of applesauce but it added to the stamp, “use by 7-10-18.” Again, apples and water plus some ascorbic acid. Another long-lasting product, package tuna labeled “best by” 12-18 — 22 months on the shelf. It is a product of Ecuador, so maybe that is why. All that’s in the package is tuna, water, vegetable broth and salt. No hint of a preservative.

I’ve decided I can’t eat the tomato bisque, however, because unlike the cranberry and applesauce, it listed 12 ingredients, eight of which were preservatives. The all-time high I found for ingredients, other than what you thought you bought, was in a salad dressing. It listed 20 including five preservatives. A baking product was a close second with 17. One of the ingredients in the baking product that had a total of 17 was called “distilled monoglycerides.” That sounds like something you might find in paint thinner. Just so that chemist who jumped me a few columns back doesn’t get all upset, I looked up the meaning of monoglycerides. What a surprise, they call it poison, but actually it’s only another name for trans-fat which the FDA told the food people they could not put into our food any more. There is a lot of switching names in the ingredient listings.

How about keeping a can of mushrooms on the shelf for 24 months – that’s what the label said, “best by 4-19,” but they were organic. The peanut butter was not really peanut butter but “oil blend” with “palm fruit” it carried a stamp of 10-17. Guess they haven’t figured out how to stretch the shelf time out for fake peanut butter.

By this time, I had decided to skip lunch because not too much of my food on hand seemed appealing. I sat back, after putting all the food products away, and began to mull over my discoveries. I decided to look up the description for FDA labeling information and the very first list noted guide, law, claims and exemptions. As I cruised through some of the double talk, all dated over six months ago, there was one statement that kept repeating. Be certain that “Labeling purpose is simple and clear.”

“To ensure food sold in the U.S. is safe and wholesome – not mis-branded or adulterated.”

As I see it, I failed to see anything simple or clear in all the variable labeling I encountered in just a short look at my foods on hand. I guess it’s really just a matter of take your chances and eat it.

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