Many Americans throw away perfectly good food due to label confusion. This contributes 398,000 tons of food waste each year. “Best by” labels indicate when the manufacturer believes the food should be used for best quality, NOT food safety. “Use by” and “sell by” dates are similar for shelf stable foods; these dates tend to reflect quality, not food safety. However, “use by” and “sell by” dates on refrigerated items do indicate when the food may begin to spoil. Don’t use refrigerated foods that are past the “use-by” or “sell-by” date. If a food product is nearing the indicated date, you may be able to freeze it to extend its life.
The first step in having safe leftovers is to cook the food safely. Cook the food to the proper temperature by using a food thermometer. Bacteria grow rapidly in the temperature danger zone (40°F to 140°F), so be sure your leftovers are safe by following these steps:
- Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours of cooking or holding it hot.
- Throw away all cooked food that has been at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
- Cool foods rapidly. To do this, large quantities of food should be cut in smaller pieces first or divided into shallow containers that will aid in cooling.
- Cover leftovers well before refrigerating. This helps keep odors and bacteria out and moisture in.
- Store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 4 days or freeze for up to 4 months. Although leftovers are safe indefinitely when frozen, quality will deteriorate when stored longer.
For a chart on storage times, visit http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html.
Supermarkets throw out $47 billion worth of food each year. Much of this food is still safe to eat. The idea is to offer food to people at low prices and reduce the amount of food wasted. This has led to new businesses opening around the United States that provide groceries at a discounted price. These food items are safe to eat,but one of the following applies:
- They are past their sell-by date (end of store “shelf life” but still safe to eat).
- They are close to their use-by date (found on shelf-stable products; indicatesabsolute best quality when unopened).
- They have minor imperfections (e.g., slightly bruised produce, slightlydented cans).
- They are from overstocks.
Why is repurposing of these foods gaining popularity? Foods that are past their sell-by date or close to their use-by date can still be safe to eat and therefore can be used to combat hunger. Currently, 1 in 8 or 11.9% of Iowans are foodinsecure, meaning that at some time during the year they lacked access to safe and nutritious food. This leads to lower intakes of nutrient-rich foods, more health problems, and loss of independence. People who are food insecure do not receivethe nutrients needed to remain healthy and active. Not having access to safe and nutritious foods in midlife and older adulthood can make completing daily tasks (e.g., cleaning, bathing, etc.) more challenging. In addition, getting a foodborne illness can have long term health consequences. In children, a lack of propernutrition is associated with increased behavior problems, school absenteeism, difficulty concentrating, and fatigue.
The Iowa organization Table to Table is working to reduce food waste and foodinsecurity. Table to Tablecollects edible food fromdonors and distributes thesefood items to those in needthrough agencies that serve the hungry, homeless, and at-risk populations. Since 1996,Table to Table has rescuedabout 12 million pounds offood from grocery stores,restaurants, schools, andother food operations. To learnmore about Table to Table, visit www.table2table.org/.
Americans throw out billions of pounds of food every year due to confusion about food expiration date labeling practices, according to a recent report released by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. This study found that over 90 percent of Americans prematurely toss food because they misinterpret dates on food labels as indicators of food safety.
For most products, date shelf life is determined by the manufacturer and is based on food quality, not food safety. The lead author of the study concluded that a standardized date labeling system providing useful information to consumers is needed. Until a new system is in place, use the guide below to help decipher codes on your next grocery store trip:
- A “Sell-by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
- A “Best If Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
- “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
It is also important that you keep track of your food inventory at home. The acronym FIFO (first in, first out) can help you remember oldest food should be stored in front and used first, while newer items should be placed in the back of your fridge or cabinets.
A helpful resource is StillTasty. Here you can type in a food item and determine how long it will stay safe and tasty. The website provides storage recommendations for the fridge and freezer. An app for the iPhone is available as well, and even alerts you when food should be tossed! A good rule of thumb is “4 day throw away”; after four days leftovers should be eaten, thrown out, or frozen.