In a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, reporter Carolyn Lochhead wrote that “Americans throw away 40 percent of the food they buy, often because of misleading expiration dates that have nothing to do with safety.”
The reporter went on to reference a study published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which said that 90 percent of Americans toss good food into the garbage because they mistakenly think that “sell by,” “best before,” “use by,” or “packed on” dates on food containers indicate safety. One-fifth of consumers, the report said, “always” throw away food based on package dates.
But the reporter then pointed out that “sell by” dates are used by retailers for inventory control, while “best before” or “use by” dates usually reflect the manufacturer’s estimates of peak quality.
Ted Labuza, a food science professor at the University of Minnesota, noted that although some labels are intended to indicate freshness, they don’t reflect edibility or safety. Labuza suggested that “if food looks rotten and smells bad, throw it away, but just because it reaches a certain date does not mean the food is unsafe.”
Hey, I’m no food science professor, but that’s exactly what I said in a blog posting from three years ago. I wrote,
“My approach to determining whether or not something is okay to consume is to apply a series of sensory tests. The first test involves using my eyes. Do I see anything blue or green growing on cheese, for example? When I open up the jar of salsa that has been in my refrigerator for a couple of weeks, are there white fuzzy things growing inside the jar? Is a penicillin-like mold spotting my bread slices? If so, regardless of the “best if used by” date marked on the package, it’s time to toss out the product.
“The second test involves the sense of smell. If I put my nose up to the opening on the milk carton and a foul stench strong enough to invoke my gag reflex emanates from within that carton, it’s a sure sign that the milk has turned, regardless of the date stamped on the carton. But if the milk smells like milk, even if the “sell by” date on the carton was two weeks ago…I feel safe pouring it all over my bowl of raisin bran and munching away.”
Okay, so what’s the big deal if people do or do not heed the “use by” dates on labels? Isn’t it our right, as free Americans, to decide for ourselves whether to carry concealed weapons and semiautomatic assault rifles with large magazine clips into schools, movie theaters, malls, or Navy Yards?
Oops, sorry, wrong topic. I mean isn’t it our inalienable right to either eat or discard foods that are beyond their “best before” dates without some government pawn dictating to us what we can do with our “expired” food, do we?
Waste not, want not
The NRDC report thinks this is a big deal and a huge waste of money. That report points out that getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in this country. Yet, with 40 percent of food in the United States today going uneaten, the amount of good food being tossed out every month averages more than 20 pounds per person.
The report suggests that “reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.” The NRDC says that the amount of food Americans are tossing into the trash or compost heap translates to the equivalent of $165 billion each year!
All this unnecessarily discarded food means that 25 percent of all freshwater, and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land are being wasted. And, at the risk of bringing up the topic of climate change, as food decomposes in landfills, it releases methane, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to greenhouse gasses.
As I said in my blog post three years ago, I will be aware of the “best if used by” dates printed on my food jars and boxes, but I will pretty much continue to ignore them and, rather, stick with my sensory tests. If it’s not discolored, not fuzzy (assuming it’s not a peach), and doesn’t cause me to gag when I smell it, it’s still good to eat...for me, anyway.