As Americans, we’ve kind of been trained to be wasteful when it comes to food. We toss out food that’s the least bit bruised or battered and we definitely don’t run the risk of getting sick by eating food that’s close to its expiration date. Don’t believe me? According to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s 2012 “Wasted” report, collectively, we don’t eat up to 40 percent of the food we buy. And according to Harvard Law and NRDC’s 2013 follow-up study, “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” one big culprit might be our overreliance on so-called expiration dates on the foods we buy.
The problem, says NRDC food and agriculture staff scientist Dana Gunders in the report,
is that those expiration dates cause people to throw away perfectly good food (and waste serious cash). It could even cause people to assume food that is spoiled because it was stored improperly is OK to eat. “Phrases like ‘sell by,’ ’use by,’ and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and [lead] to a false confidence in food safety. It is time for a well-intended but wildly ineffective food date labeling system to get a makeover.”
OK, we’re all big, giant food wasters, so how do we fix it? Well, first let’s investigate all those dates.
What food dates really mean
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service fact sheet, only infant formula is required to have an accurate use-by date under federal law. Some states may have regulations for other foods, but it’s hardly consistent from state to state, and even in states that do require it, it’s only required on certain foods, such as meat or dairy products, and further, the accuracy of those dates depends on a lot of factors that are difficult to verify, such as the temperature at which the food is stored throughout the entire supply chain. Well, that’s certainly not comforting.
Long story short: Those “expiration dates” are kinda (if not mostly) arbitrary, and most foods last for weeks if not years after the dates printed on the package. And it makes sense when you think about what the phrases they use actually mean. The USDA fact sheet gives the following definitions:
- Best if Used By/Before: The date the product should be used by for best flavor or quality; it has nothing to do with food safety, and it’s even safe to purchase it after that date if it shows up in the discount bin unless there are other signs of spoilage.
- Sell-By: This is literally just a date for use by the retailer to aid them in their inventory and has nothing to do with the food’s safety (and perhaps even quality).
- Use-By: With the exception of baby formula (and medicines if you see it on those), this is when the food is at its peak quality and has nothing to do with safety. For formula (and medicine), you shouldn’t buy or use the product after this date, as the nutritional quality may have degraded, but for all other food items, it has nothing to do with safety.
But if best-if-used-by, sell-by and use-by dates tell you nothing, how are you supposed to know when your food is more than past its prime? To reduce food waste (and your grocery bill), you just need to go back to basics and learn what signs to look for.
For some foods, you can see if there’s a problem. Discoloration doesn’t always mean food is spoiled, as some foods, like avocados, naturally brown when exposed to air. Green veggies will start to turn yellow as they age, and while that does mean they’re losing nutrients, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unsafe to eat. But some types of discoloration are definitely red flags.
EatByDate says that if you crack open an egg and the egg white has a pinkish or iridescent tinge to it, chuck it and opt for oatmeal for breakfast.
Brown spots on fruits and veggies are certainly disconcerting, but unless most of the food is brown or it displays other signs of spoilage, it’s probably just the result of bruising and is safe to eat. For example, East Point Potatoes says brown and black spots on potatoes can just be removed before consumption. But they warn that if the potato has started to turn green, it should be discarded.
Meat does start to naturally discolor when it’s exposed to light and air, so if it’s just starting to turn a little reddish brown (or bluish or yellowish for poultry), The Kitchn notes that the meat probably OK to eat unless there are other warning signs.
Change in texture
When some foods go bad, the texture is a dead giveaway something’s not quite right.
Meats, including deli meat, will develop a slimy or sticky film and should be discarded. Salad greens will wilt and may also develop a slimy, discolored appearance. Even carrots and other veggies can develop a weird slick coating when they’re getting a little long in the tooth, and shouldn’t be eaten either.
But a change in texture doesn’t always mean it’s bad. If an apple is only slightly soft and doesn’t display any other signs of spoilage, just cut away any dark spots and use them to whip up some applesauce or throw them in the slow cooker with a pork shoulder and some aromatics. But Livestrong warns that extremely mushy apples that smell vinegary should be discarded. A lot of fruits and veggies can still be used if they’re only somewhat wrinkled or soft. To find out, just ask Overlord Google.
Dairy products, such as milk, sour cream and Greek yogurt, will curdle and become lumpy when they’re bad.
Stale bread, however, isn’t necessarily bad unless you see other signs of spoilage. Just chop it up and make croutons or homemade breadcrumbs and use them immediately.
Foods sometimes develop a greenish mold, and mold should definitely not be ingested. But does that mean you need to discard moldy food or can you just cut away the mold?
The Mayo Clinic says when it comes to very soft cheese — such as cottage cheese, cream cheese or ricotta — or shredded, crumbled or sliced cheese the whole container should be discarded since “the mold can send threads throughout the cheese — contaminating more than you see. In addition, harmful bacteria, such as listeria, brucella, salmonella and E. coli, can grow along with the mold.” But they say that in semisoft and hard cheese (such as cheddar, Colby, Parmesan and Swiss), the mold usually can’t penetrate that far, so you can just cut away the part that’s moldy.
But those white specs you often see on aged cheeses like Parm aren’t mold. They’re amino acid clusters, and Serious Eats says they’re perfectly safe to ingest. But if they creep you out, scrap them off.
When it comes to moldy bread, salvaging it is a no-go for the same reason you can’t salvage that moldy cottage cheese, according to Healthline. Bread is porous, so the threads of mold can spread even if you can’t see them.
That said, mold can be pretty serious for someone who has an allergy to it or those with compromised immune systems, and if that’s the case, any moldy food should be immediately discarded in a way that ensures they won’t have any contact with it. And never do a sniff test of moldy bread even if you’re perfectly healthy. Healthline warns it can lead to breathing problems, including asthma, if the spores get into your lungs.
If food smells rancid, sour or vinegary (when it isn’t supposed to), discard it.
This can be challenging for foods like sour cream, which have a naturally tangy scent as is, but if it smells less tangy and more like sour milk, it’s bad. The same applies to cheese and other dairy products.
Raw fish will start to smell fishier as it gets older, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, according to the Cook’s Illustrated book Cook’s Science. But if fish smells both fishy and acrid or has other signs of spoilage, discard it.
Oils can also go rancid, and if that happens, it’s best not to use them because they’ll make your food taste disgusting. Livestrong also says rancid oil can damage cells in your body over time and even cause food poisoning if it’s infused with other organics, such as garlic.
If your flour or other dry goods smell musty, don’t use them either. In flour, a musty smell might be a sign of mold, according to Our Everyday Life. And if it smells rancid, the oils in the flour may have gone bad, and it should be discarded just like a bottle of canola oil would be.
A word of caution
EatByDate is an excellent resource if you need to look up the signs of spoilage or want to know the real expiration date of a specific food (smooth or crunch peanut butter that isn’t marketed as “natural” lasts up to a year past the printed date if it’s unopened!).
However, Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, told ABC News there’s a difference between spoiled food and contaminated food. According to Doyle, the big baddies we’re all afraid of — things like salmonella and E. coli — are odorless, colorless and invisible. Those types of contaminations happen as the result of improper food safety practices, whether at the farm, the processing plant or in your own home. The spoilage bacteria may not be appetizing and certainly might make you feel a bit icky (even if it’s just psychosomatic), but it’s not nearly as harmful as the stuff you can’t see, taste or smell. So always keep an eye out for recalls and follow proper food-handling and storage procedures in your own home.