7 On Your Side tests food past expiration dates

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Did you know the average family spends $2,200 per year on food they will never eat? Experts put much of the blame on those "best by" dates on the packages. Seven on Your Side's Michael Finney says a state lawmaker is trying to stop that waste.

You've seen all the different labels -- best before, use by, sell by, freshest before. None of them are required or regulated by law. State Assemblyman David Chiu wants only two labels -- one for freshness and one for safety. That's because he says most food is safe even if it's old. But is old food really OK? We put it to the test.

You buy perfectly good food here. And pay perfectly good money for it. But did you know one out of four bags you take home will wind up in a landfill.

"We're in a throwaway culture," said Chef Mary Risley.

Risley founded Food Runners, which collects food before it is dumped and gives it to the needy.

Finney: "All this stuff here is expired. Does that mean it's inedible?"
Risley: "If you were hungry you'd eat it."

What if we really did eat it?

We found a can of mushroom soup that went past its best by date three years ago, a brownie mix that was supposed to be used by 2012, and eggs that are 10 days past expiration.

We bought the same products brand new, then cooked them side by side.

We stirred up each can, pour a nice wine, and had restaurateur Shelly Lindgren and food bank volunteer Alan Ovson try to guess which is which.

They both decide the soup in the left side mug is better. And it turns out they both preferred the soup that passed the best by date three years ago.

"It had more flavor, more mushroom flavor," said Ovson.

Lindgren adds, "I probably would have thrown it away cause I have kids and I just worry."

Which is exactly what Chiu hopes to change.

"An incredible amount of food is being thrown out because of confusing date labels," he said.

Chiu proposed a bill to simplify dates -- best by would indicate freshness, expires on would tell you it's unsafe after that date. He says only a few types of food will make you sick when they expire like shellfish, some deli meats, and certain cheeses.

"The labels they see on products might be unnecessarily scaring consumers into throwing out products they don't need to," said Chiu

So we tried the other old food.

"If you have an old brownie mix in the cupboard, stand by," said Risley.

Lindgren makes the old brownies. Risley makes the new ones. And they add fresh eggs.

Lindgren and Ovson guess which plate has the old, which has the new

"It's moister, it's um not dried out," said Lindgren.

Ovson adds, "It's so subjective it's hard to tell."

Lindgren thought the brownies on the left were better while Ovson picked the ones on the right. Turns out those were the new ones. And Lindgren actually preferred the brownies that expired four years ago.

"Oh man, I guess I just like old food better," she said.

But what about perishables? Risley cooks up the old eggs alongside the new ones

Lindgren says, "They're both really good."

"All I can say is, 'Mary, what time is breakfast tomorrow?'" said Ovson.

They can't tell the difference and nobody got sick.

Risley says we throw out dairy way too soon. We try milk that expired four weeks ago.

"It's definitely not bad," Risley said.

So we asked Risley -- how can you really tell what's good or bad?

"If it smells, throw it out. That should be your key, not the date."

Because of Chiu's legislation industry groups agreed to draft a new standard for dating that could be applied nationwide his month. It should be ready this month. The bill is on hold until then. Click here if you have questions about how long you can keep other foods in your kitchen.
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