Managing inventory for a food establishment can be a tricky job. On one hand, no business wants to serve customers expired goods that can make them sick. However, food waste can cause stores to lose out on valuable profits.
So where is the line? When can you hold on to food, and when should you throw it out? With the right knowledge and a little planning, you can keep your customers and wallet happy.
How to read food expiration dates
Many different expiration labels exist, which can cause quite the controversy when deciding whether to throw food away. We have another article that explains the different kinds of labels.
The FDA’s official stance is that most labels indicate when food will be at its highest quality. A “best if used by” date doesn’t necessarily mean the food would make you sick after the date has passed. Instead, the food may begin to lose some of its flavor.
Consumers can choose whether to eat or throw away expired food, but grocery stores and restaurants are held to a higher standard. To ensure the safest and highest quality food for customers, grocery stores and restaurants should throw away goods and ingredients before they reach this point.
Some stores choose to sell food items that are close to their expiration date at a discounted cost. This allows for transparency between the customer and the business about the potential quality of the food.
There are also times when food may expire before its official date. Since expiration labels aren’t necessarily the final say on whether food is safe, it’s better to have a system for throwing away products and ingredients when they go bad. A good mantra to follow is: when in doubt, throw it out.
Know thy refrigerator: date marking for food safety
The best way to ensure food is always fresh and safe for customers is to develop your own date marking system. Date marking is the term for recording a use-by date on perishable foods based on when it was thawed, opened, or prepared.
When you’re at work, you should plan to use opened or leftover food within seven days. If you’re at home, you may have a bit more leeway. Check our leftovers chart to see how long different foods last in the refrigerator or freezer.
You can record the dates on the food container, or in other places where the food is stored. This makes it easier to keep track of how long food will last, and indicates a clear time when it should be thrown away. If you use different ingredients for a recipe, mark the finished product with the earliest date any of the ingredients will expire.
FIFO, the golden rule for reducing food waste
With a solid date marking system in place, you can better manage your inventory and plan how to use it to reduce food waste. It’s always best to follow principles of FIFO, short for “first in, first out.” Use ingredients and foods that you purchased longest ago, and will expire soonest, before newer ingredients and foods.
If implemented properly, you can create a cycle of purchasing food and using it before it goes bad. If you have a good idea of how much inventory you need to satisfy demand at different times, you can always keep just enough on hand. In this way, you can drastically reduce the amount of food you throw away.
One summer when I was in college, I moved back home to work and be closer to family. While there, I attended a church group with other college students. A local bread shop donated its leftover, day-old bread to our group. As stereotypical starving college students, we loved eating the bread after activities — we didn’t mind if it was a day old.
Because commercial food establishments aren’t supposed to sell or use expired foods, at times you may be faced with the decision to throw away food that is still safe to eat. Donating the food to local charities or places where it will be eaten is a better alternative. As long as the food is safe to eat, you can benefit the community by providing food you would’ve otherwise thrown away.
Before you donate expired food, make sure the organization you’re donating to knows the items are expired; some groups may not accept expired food donations.
By learning when food expires, setting up your own date marking system, and following principles of FIFO, you can always provide high-quality, safe food to customers — and reduce your food waste at the same time!
To learn more food safety principles, check out our food manager certification course.
— Calvin Clark
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