Cleaning out a refrigerator can be super satisfying, but here's the thing: you're likely throwing out foods that haven't actually gone bad. Since not all food label expiration dates are created equal, Huffington Post Editorial Fellow Casey Williams put those dates to the test for a week by eating only expired foods.
Williams ate "all kinds of things" during his experiment, including chicken and bacon that were past the "sell by," "use by" or "best before" label date, plus lots of old wilted green vegetables, he told TODAY.
Chicken and bacon? Sounds like risky business, but Williams felt fine afterwards.
"One of the big contributors to food waste in people's homes is this confusion about expiration dates on food," says Williams. "They're not regulated by the federal government and they don't tell you when food is going to become unsafe, they just tell you when it's going to lose its freshness."
This misconception contributes to a whopping 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food that goes to waste in the US every year. That's 30 to 40 percent of food in the US, according to the USDA.
The only food regulated by the FDA with a "sell by" date is infant formula for nutritional value reasons, not for safety reasons, NBC news medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar told TODAY. "The rest of the foods are labeled with dates that manufacturers tell retailers to use. So the manufacturers say 'put sell by this date' and the grocery store puts that on there ,and that's really just to say 'after you buy this, for the next couple of weeks or days, depending on what the food is and how you store it, it's still good to eat."
In addition to eating the decomposing foods in his refrigerator, Williams also went dumpster diving in New York City during his experiment.
"I got a couple of things from a trash can," says Williams. One food was a honeydew that had been thrown out. "I just cut it open and it was delicious."
The grossest food he ate was a funky almost rotting peach. "It was a peach that no one wanted to buy from the farmers' market, it was going to head to the trash," says Williams.
Surprisingly, even though some of the so-called expired foods he ate tasted pretty bad, none of them made Williams get sick or even have a stomachache!
"Weirdly enough, the taste or smell of a food doesn't necessarily mean that it's contaminated with a bug that's going to make you sick," Dr. Azar told TODAY. "I think that's probably the biggest distinction: a food borne illness like salmonella, shigella and E. coli (all the stuff we hear about in the news), those foods are contaminated with those bacteria somewhere in the manufacturing and packaging process. It can taste fine but if the food is handled improperly, like raw meat left out for more than 2 hours, that's how you can get sick from it. The actual process of food decay (a peach going bad, a banana getting rotten) isn't really going to make you sick with a bacterial or viral illness, but you might have an upset stomach."
Before you partake in your own experiment like Williams, check out the FDA's guidelines for food safety.
"My recommendation," Williams wrote, "Don’t go out of your way to eat past-date food. In fact, try not to stock up on so much food that it goes bad before you can eat it. But if you do pull something out of the fridge and notice it’s past the 'sell by,' 'use by' or 'best before' date, don’t worry too much about it."