Got a lot of blackberries? Then check out this recipe for Blackberry Mojito Fruit Leather.

I'm not a huge fan of fruit leathers, but this turned out super good! And, really, you can't go wrong with blackberries, mint and rum.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Tossing the 'sell by' date

I'm all about avoiding food born illnesses since it seems like, if someone is going to have a problem with rotten food, it's going to be me. Maybe it's just my tender tummy, but I tend to follow the "use by" and "sell by" dates religiously, just for that very reason.

According to this article in Slate, Ignore Expiration Dates, the author makes a reasonable argument that the dates stamped on our food are really just arbitrary.

University of Minnesota food scientist Ted Labuza explained in the article that expiration dates address optimum freshness (rather than safety) and tend to be extremely conservative. Why so conservative? Well, because the dates need to account for how the laziest people with the most undesirable kitchens might store and handle their food. Then the manufacturers test their products based on those criteria.

For example, for perishables like milk and meat, people who go straight home and refrigerate their groceries as soon as they get home will have a 3 - 7 day grace period after the "sell by" date. Because many consumers take their food on a tour of the city, leaving it in overheated cars or making additional stops on the way home and then store it in an overly warm fridge, the life expectancy of the food is reduced. This results in a shortened date span to accommodate the least common denominator.

More importantly, there is no federal mandate on food freshness dating. It's an entirely voluntary practice that's been adopted by producers and manufacturers to put on their products as well as grocery stores. This serves two purposes. On one hand, it gives us a sense (falsely so in some cases) of security about a given product's freshness. And on the other, it's possible that the manufacturers and stores are listing dates that expire prematurely to ensure that consumers replace products more frequently than they probably need to.

What's a consumer to do? Well, you really have to use your judgement. I wouldn't skimp on foods that, when they go bad, take you down with them. If that milk looks or smells weird, don't drink it. Is it covered in mold, slime or other unidentifiable growths? If so, depending on the type of food, either cut off the offending piece or throw it out (preferably composting it) altogether.

Still don't know what to do with it? Here is a series of videos explaining how to tell when food goes bad, including How to Tell if Your Bread has Gone Bad and How to Tell if Your Leftovers Have Gone Bad. So, now you don't have an excuse.

What do you think about expiration dates on food? Do you eat packaged or canned foods years after the pull date? If it looks and smells okay is it fair game?

31 comments:

Wonder-ful said...

How to tell if my food has gone bad? If it smells funky and is growing a winter coat... or if it dissentegrated into mush and is no longer recognizable as the veggie it once was... then it's time to go.

The Larsons said...

Expiration dates really do seem arbitrary. If it looks and smells okay we go ahead and eat it, especially packaged foods (we avoid canned because of the BPA issue).

thesimplepoppy said...

We don't eat a lot of packaged food, but if something is expired I don't just automatically throw it out, unless it's from two years ago or something. I check it out first. But we don't eat meat really, I'd probably be more careful about that and dairy doesn't last long enough here for it to go bad here.

louisa @ Recycle This said...

In the UK, we have three dates - sell by, use by and best before.

Sell by is a guide for the shops so we can safely ignore that one.

Use by tends to be used on fresh goods with a short life expectancy and we treat it as a guide - when to start paying more attention to the obvious "gone off" signs. If an egg still sinks a week after its use by date, we're happy eating it; if a carrot bends in a circle the day before its use by date, not so much.

Best before dates tend to be used on pre-packaged groceries, cans etc and are a very rough guide for us - to tell us how long something has been sat our shelves and remind us not to buy it again. I like that it's "best before" : "it's best before then but you know, you can still eat it in three years and you'll be fine".

When we were in Russia a few years ago, it took us a while to realise that food was stamped with a production/packaging date, rather than an expiry one, so it was left for the cook to decide whether to use it or not. It confused us for ages though - we just assumed everything was long expired... ;)

Q said...

Actually(We just learned about this is school) it's not a sell by date. It's called a Durable life date. It's just optimum freshness. If a store wants to keep a product on the shelf after the "DLD" is up they can, but they usually won't because no one else does and it just makes them look bad.

Fun little fact, anything with a shelf life of 90 days or more doesn't have to have one(here in Canada at least) and it's totally a guess.

Tree Huggin Momma said...

I rarely use sell by date (except on meats). If it looks good smells good and tastes good we are good. However if it looks, smells or tastes at all iffy I don't care what the date is, it goes.

Nina said...

The sad, pessimistic part of me is pretty sure the sell by dates are manipulated in an effort to move more product... the only thought in company's heads seems to be SELL MOAR!

Paige said...

That's interesting. I know an elderly lady that brings her milk in and keeps it in her bedroom for about 6 days before it goes bad (to her standards). She has limited physical ability and loves her milk, so she just leaves the gallon at her bedside. I always wondered why this was possible, but now I think I understand it.

Lisa Y said...

If my son finds a jar of peanut butter in the house that has a one month old best by date, he thinks we are trying to poison him 8-).

I, however, will use just about anything regardless of date as long as it smells and looks OK. Except for milk. I don't like milk anyway and only use it in cooking. When it passes the date it gets tossed. Yuck

Oldnovice said...

I blog about this all the time. Either we have the strongest stomachs in the world or these dates are meaningless.

I just recently blogged about a pizza being made with leftovers (in honor of the food waste challenge of yours). A deli dip that had expired in April, 2009 was used because it passed the eye/nose test. I was pretty curious to see if we'd awaken the next morning sick to our stomachs, but we didn't.

Boxed mixes that need to rise, though, need a boost of baking powder. It's the ingredient that loses effectiveness.

I agree with the author. I know a young woman who's come down with food poisoning twice in the past few months and she doesn't eat expired foods. We've never had food poisoning. It's not the age of the product (unless it's obvious), but the conditions under which it was made.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I've always assumed that I have a week after the sell-by date. At my family's farm market, perishables that we don't produce like milk and cheese are taken home by us after the sell by date. Mostly I try to use it by the 7-day grace period, but I never worried if it still looks fine *until I became pregnant, then I became more cautious. I always prefer the label "Best if used by" than "expiration date".

Adrienne said...

The way to avoid this problem altogether... buy stuff you intend to use, and use it soon enough that you don't have to debate whether it's safe or not. Look in the back of the cupboard once a month or so and see if there's anything you forgot about, and plan a meal that uses it. Put bread or prepared food or meat in the freezer if you don't think you can use it all up.

The only thing I have a problem with using up is the occasional dairy products, and mostly you can tell by the smell if its off.

Just trying to be green said...

The only things we buy anymore that come with an expiration date are dairy products and meats. Last night we ate some fine chicken that was best before March 2, and it was perfectly fine. If I'm going to go beyond the sale by date by more than that, however, I'll simply freeze the meat. Problem solved.

As for cheeses, well, I used to work creating "artisan" cheeses, and thus understand about molds and bacteria a bit more. Depending on the variety of mold, and the original rind on the cheese, I'll either scrape it off, or cut into the cheese a bit.

Now, I wouldn't be surprised if the peanut butter in my cupboard was expired, but if it is, I'm still going to eat it, as it still tastes great.

jinman2871 said...

We pretty much disregard expiration dates in our home - I have always assumed that manufacturers put them on there to ensure return customers. "Oh, darn it! That can of soup has expired! Better throw it out and buy a new one."
As long as the food smells and looks okay, we won't let it go to waste. There was a time in the US when there weren't expiration dates and apparently it did little-to-no harm to either of my grandparents. :)

Elisabeth said...

My husband is a bit skittish about this, but I just trust my senses. If it looks, smells, or tastes bad...I don't eat or drink it. I only pay minimal attention to the expiration dates printed on food.

Julie said...

I shop once a month for most of my groceries (well there is a trip or two during the month for coffee cream!!) So I always take a cooler with ice so my milk products get the best possible chance to stay fresh. Works like a hot (make that cold) damn.

everydayfrugaleverydaygreen said...

Jonathan at Wasted Food has addressed this issue a number of times too. It really does seem to be an arbritary thing. There's no excuse for being careless once you've bought the food. And there would be a lot less waste if consumers used common sense...that and keep a cooler with an ice pack in it for when you go to the store in warm weather.

Anna in Atlanta said...

Depends on the item. If it seems icky or has fuzz on it, then I don't use it (or at least get the fuzz off first). If it's been around a while but seems ok, I try to be sure it goes into something that gets cooked. Mostly I try to use everything before I've had it that long. So far, so good.

Jonathan said...

@Louisa has it right--the sell-by date is intended for stores, not consumers. That's why in the UK, where they're a bit more "switched on" to food waste avoidance, they're considering banning them.

I agree with @Farmer's Daughter--assume you have about 7 days past the sell-by date (and usually about that with "use-by," too). And of course, smelling and looking at it to see if it looks OK. Common sense--not the overly cautious dates!

@Q I'd love to hear more about the "durable life date."

Kate said...

I trained as a chef, and part of that training was how not to make people sick (or even kill them) with food poisoning. It was very useful information. That said, I - mostly - agree with the idea that we can use common sense, a knowledge of our own habits pertaining to food safety and our own senses to guide us as to whether or not food is safe for consumption.

Where it breaks down though is with our own sense of smell and sight. We can't see or smell bacteria that are present in foods at the minimum threshold to make us ill - seriously ill in some cases. If we could always detect spoiled food through the sniff test, well...not many of us would ever get food poisoning, would we?

One workaround for this that I have used is to offer foods I'm unsure about to cats. Obviously, this works best with a cat that's not too picky, and with foods cats are likely to want to eat. Cats have noses that CAN detect spoilage at the minimum threshold to make humans sick. (Dogs do not, even though their noses are far superior to ours.) So here's how it works: if a cat will eat a food you're unsure of, it's safe to eat. If a cat will not eat food you're unsure of, you may have a picky or uninterested cat, or you may have spoiled food. The positive result is pretty solid. The negative result is far more uncertain. Still, it's better than the reverse.

Anonymous said...

don't throw out milk that's gone off- use it in baking. sour milk is excellent for baking, especially for recipes calling for buttermilk.
-TK

5binzel said...

My dh and I have various thresholds. I have had frostbite, so I thought the fridge was colder than it was. It took a thermometer to convince me that we had it about 8 degrees too warm. But as far as leftovers go, I'll sniff something and decide not to eat it...but the hubby will think it's fine. So, he gets to eat it! I'd rather have a leftover in the next day or two. I always assumed we had at least a week after the sell by date - because it is a 'sell by', not 'use by' date.

Aimee said...

I admit - I buy food at those discount stores that offer pasta, crackers, breakfast cereal, boxed juice, and dry beans and rice and the like that are recently expired. Now, I'm not buying produce or dairy products or meat here - just dry goods or canned goods. The worst thing that's ever happened to me is that the corn chips were slightly stale - just like they would be after a week or so at your own house. I read somewhere that canned goods are virtual;ly imperishable with today's technology, and that the sell by date refers to the time when the nutritional quality begins to decline, not to when the food actually begins to spoil. Clearly - I don't want to eat food with no nutritional quality, but you get the point. Also, oftern these places sell food that is NOT expired - just a corner of the box is crushed or something like that.

Cat said...

We often go one step futher than ingorning the sell by dates - we search them out!

I often by meat or milk that is at or a couple of days past the sell by dates and get drastic discounts from the market. Frugal and avoiding food waste - bingo!

Robj98168 said...

If it smells funky and looks funky I don't eat it. Trouble is how do you know when sour cream goes bad?

Cynthia in Denver said...

Whooo RAy! We just bought a cow share to get a gallon of RAW MILK each week!!! (In Colo. you can only drink raw milk if you own the cow ... cow shares are a great loop hole in the system).

The dairy farmer at Johnsons Acres said she would teach me how to make sour cream and yogurt from the milk so milk doesn't have to go waste if we don't drink it all up before it goes bad!!

Billie said...

Dairy and meat products are the only things I am a little weird about. I am a little weird about my milk and absolutely don't want to run into milk that tastes bad.

Otherwise? I don't buy too much that has a date on it.

Molly said...

cultured dairy products, especially yogurt and buttermilk, seem to be perfectly fine even months past their sell-by date. Once the yogurt is opened it's pretty easy to tell when it's gone bad, because mold will grow on the surface, but when it's sealed it seems to last forever.

Rosa said...

The one "sell by" style date I do follow is the rule to not eat home-canned foods more than 2 years old. But except for the odd can of hidden pickles, anything that sits in our pantry for 2 years it's because we didn't like it anyway.

For cooked food & opened stuff, I go by smell/texture - but I have a pretty sensitive nose. The only exception is liquid milk because it all smells off to me, all the time - I follow the date pretty well, and use past-date milk as sour milk for baked goods.

Allie said...

I never even look at expiration dates. They're so inaccurate I consider them meaningless. My roommate, on the other hand, obsesses over them. I eat very little packaged food, however, except that which I've canned myself.

Luschka said...

Yeah, I go with the eye/nose test - but my hubby is a bit of a stickler for the ol' dates. I cook things without his knowledge and its fine, but if he knows about the date he automatically thinks it tastes a little 'funny'... lol

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