A recent Time Magazine article by Joel Stein, ‘Til Mold Do Us Part’, states that an American family of 4 throws out about $1,560 worth of edible food annually.
Yikes…that’s about 461.5 tanks of gas (figuring at about current median of 3.25/gallon); 7.5 car payments of $200; 300 Starbucks coffees (at $5 each); a little under 1-1/2 years of electrical bills (at about $90/month); and close to 3 years’ worth of water bill payments (estimated at $30 a month).
You get the picture – Americans are wasting a lot of money, says the article, throwing out food. Why? Because the expiration dates on the labels are telling them they better or risk getting… what? Dysentery? Amoebiosis? Kwashiorkor?
No, nothing as exotic as these food-related illnesses. In fact, according to the article, you won’t get much of anything. Except about $1,560 more dollars in your bank account at the end of the year.
A recent study out of Harvard University Law School and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recommends eliminating sell-by dates on food products because they’re misleading, or downright inaccurate. Because of this, Americans, says Mr. Stein, are wasting, on average, 10 times more food than Southeast Asians – 15%-25% of the food we buy isn’t consumed. According to Dana Gunders, a staff scientist at the NRDC who helped pen the study, adds that actual food poisoning comes from contamination by bacteria not food spoilage.
Expiration dates were initiated back in the 1970s by state and city organizations to help consumers know when food products are freshest – not safest. And, there’s no real scientific measure of that – just a basic guessing or taste test by a group of researchers. That may be why, Mr. Stein surmises, that labels don’t usually say expiration – rather they list words like use by, best before, sell by, enjoy by, such and such a date.
Mr. Stein, as well as dumpster divers, may be on to something important. As a consumer, you likely have noticed that grocer’s meats have a use by date of the current date or the next day at the latest. Yet, if you do a little experiment to see how far you can push that envelope, as long as you keep the product well-refrigerated, or frozen, those dates can be expanded even further without any difference in taste or threat to your health.
Something else you might not be aware of – the expiration date on eggs can be extended out about 1 month, and yogurt and milk can be kept for a few extra days if your refrigerator is at the proper cold temperature.
Paul VanLandingham, EdD, a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., offers these definitions of the “dates” terminology used on food packaging:
“Sell by” date. This is the last day of highest level of quality, but still edible for some time after.
“Guaranteed fresh” date. Bakery items mostly, still edible after the date, but not peak freshness.
“Use by” date. The last date recommended for product’s peak quality.
“Pack” date. Found usually on canned or packaged goods, and may be in code. It can be month-day-year or MMDDYY, or the manufacturer could use the Julian calendar. January would then be 001-0031 and December 334-365.
Most consumers have probably figured out that the food label dates don’t give a true safe guide to their use. So, to save more of your food and your money, Dr. Landingham shares these basic rules of food safety for higher risk foods:
- Milk. Usually fine until a week after the “Sell By” date.
- Eggs. OK for 3-5 weeks after you bring them home (assuming you bought them before the “sell by” date). Double-grade A’s will go down a grade in a week but still be perfectly edible.
- Poultry and seafood. Cook or freeze within 1-2 days.
- Beef and pork. Cook or freeze within 3-5 days.
- Canned goods. High acidic foods, like tomato sauce, can keep 18 months or more. Low-acid foods, like canned green beans, are probably risk-free for up to five years.
Peggy VanLaanen, EdD, RD, a professor of food and nutrition at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas offers these tips:
- Keep canned and dry food at 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in a dry, dark place. Humidity can speed-up deterioration. The FDA reports that taste, smell, and appearance of food can change quickly if air conditioning fails in a home or warehouse.
- Discard obviously bulging cans or packages, and/or foods with a grayish surface, no matter what the expiration date says.
And the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service offer a few more:
- Purchase the product before the date expires.
- For perishable items, get the food home immediately and refrigerate it. Freeze it if you can’t use it within times recommended on the chart.
- Once you freeze a perishable product, the package dates don’t matter. Foods continuously frozen are safe indefinitely.
- Follow food handling recommendations of product.
Using these professional recommendations, you can likely safely stretch your food dollar without damage to your GI tract or your life. Of course, there’s also the consumer common sense guide too… if it looks bad, tastes bad, smells bad, than it is bad. Toss it no matter what the date says.
Time Magazine, Til Mold Do Us Part, by Joel Stein, October 2013.