Billshark is constantly looking for ways to save you money. One of the most wasteful practices in this country is the habit of tossing food and drugs that are past their expiration dates. This is understandable. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to contract food poisoning, you’ve no doubt vowed never to go through that experience again. And the average person doesn’t really know enough about drugs to question manufacturers’ expiration dates. But that little stamp on the packaging is costing Americans billions of dollars every year—much of it unnecessary.
Perfectly good food
The confusion around expiration dates on food packaging stems from the wording used by manufacturers to indicate freshness. In the 1970s, producers of boxed, canned, and frozen foods responded to consumer demand by placing a stamp on their products representing their best guess as to when the contents would be at their peak. There was no government regulation requiring this move, so companies have employed as many as a dozen different wordings to convey this information.
Two years ago, two of the largest grocery industry trade groups announced plans to standardize these phrases to two: “Use by” and “Best if used by.” But this hasn’t helped many consumers, who still question the quality of the food if it’s past a date stamped on the package.
A classic example is the “use by” date on egg cartons, although the eggs can be eaten safely for three to five weeks after that date. (To test it, float it in a bowl of water. If the egg stays on the bottom, it’s fresh. If it stands upright, use it soon. If it floats, toss it.)
The only food product label that is regulated by the government is infant formula, which testing has shown begins to lose some of its nutrient value after the “use-by” date.
So how can you tell whether a product past its stamped date is safe to eat? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says:
“Spoiled foods will develop an off-odor, flavor, or texture, and should not be eaten.”
Also, look for:
- mold on bread, meats, vegetables or dairy products
- slime on cheese, cold cuts, or meat
- bulging, rusted, or leaking cans
- discoloration of fruits and vegetables
One sign to disregard is the darkening of raw meat, which changes color when exposed to air. This doesn’t mean the meat has gone bad. Use the sniff test to tell for sure.
Perfectly safe drugs
We’re also wasting billions in discarding “expired” drugs. In 1979, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring an expiration date on prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, but—as with expiration dates on food—there’s little science behind these date stamps.
The FDA maintains that expired medical products can be risky because they can lose their potency over time, or undergo changes in chemical composition that can cause unintended consequences.
Yet a former FDA official, Ajaz Hussain, president of the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Technology and Education, told the Associated Press that he doesn’t hesitate to take expired drugs.
“We probably are throwing away $60 to $70 billion a year [with expired medications].”
In 2017, National Public Radio, Inc., (NPR) reported the case of a forgotten box of prescription drugs found in a back closet an old retail pharmacy. Some of the pills it contained predated the 1969 moon landing, with most 30 or 40 years past their expiration dates.
Researchers tested these drugs and found that of the 14 different compounds still sealed in their original containers, 12 were as potent as they were when manufactured. Yet many states and the federal government nevertheless require institutions and pharmacies to discard expired drugs. Why? As with so many other things, money is a big factor.
The 1979 rule required drug manufacturers to provide data showing that their medications retained potency until the expiration date on the label, usually 12 to 36 months after manufacture.
“Since they are not required to check beyond [that date],” reported NPR, “most don’t, largely because regulations make it expensive and time-consuming for manufacturers to extend expiration dates.”
So not only does it cost drug companies more to research expiration dates, but they also have a less-commendable incentive: Expired drugs that are disposed of must be replaced by the consumer, thus boosting manufacturers’ profits.
The American Medical Association (AMA) is among the organizations that have called for extended expiration dates on drugs, and the U.S. military, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) already stockpile a large amount of “expired” drugs for use in the event of a large-scale emergency.
And the Shelf-Life Extension Program (SLEP), a collaboration between the FDA and the Department of Defense (DOD) begun in 1986, found that 88 percent of 122 different drugs they studied should have their expiration dates extended between one year and 278 months (over 23 years), with the average recommended extension about 66 months (over five years).
Are expired drugs dangerous? The FDA continues to insist they can be, though no recorded instance of anyone being harmed has appeared in any medical literature. The main issue appears to be potency. Such drugs as aspirin and the antibiotic tetracycline can both deteriorate rapidly after their expiration dates.
If you have any questions about the potency or expiration of any drug, check with your doctor or pharmacist before discarding it. But don’t buy into the expensive habit of automatically tossing expired drugs.
To save money on your bills, check with Billshark. We can save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars every year.