Can I eat that? Examining expiration dates and their influence on food waste

food4

COLUMBUS, Ga. – Every day food gets wasted – about 40 percent of it uneaten each year…which accounts for about $165 billion dollars thrown away.

“Most American families spend about $1,500 a year on food we purchase and then throw out,” says JoAnne Burkenkamp.

JoAnne Berkenkamp is the Senior Advocate for the Food and Agriculture Program at Natural Resources Defense Council – a non-profit organization which brings awareness to climate, water, food and health issues to help protect our environment

“Roughly a quarter of the water – fresh water that’s used in the United States – goes to grow food that we don’t eat. Similarly, 20 to 25 percent of our crop land and fertilizer is used to grow food that we then discard,” says Burkenkamp.

food8That makes discarded food the largest contributor in the nation’s landfills – increasing greenhouse emissions like methane.

“If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world after China and the United States. So those emissions happen all along the supply chain and then they increase when we landfill food we discard rather than composting it or finding some other way to manage food we waste,” says Burkenkamp.

One reason for tossing food is based off of sell-by, use-by and best-by dates. These dates are used to ensure the food quality, not necessarily the food safety. The FDA does not regulate sell-by dates (except for infant formula). Manufacturers use it rather to estimate when food is at its peak.

“The use-by date is the preferred manufacture’s date for the customer to use the product. The sell-by date is the preferred date by the manufacturer for us to sell the product to the customer so there is some shelf life after the sell-by date,” says Brenda Reid.

Brenda Reid is the Publix Media and Community Relations Manager for Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

food1“The best-by date means the date is best to consume the product by or use the product by because of the quality of the product. So it could be that you could still use it but the quality lessens if you wait beyond the use-by date,” says Reid.

For example, milk can last one week after its expiration date, unopened bacon: 2 weeks and eggs: 3 to 5 weeks!

For a full chart of how long meat lasts past its code date click here. For a full chart on how long other food – including canned, dry goods and dairy last past its code date click here.

To help reduce food waste, Publix pulls all meat a day before the sell-by dates and freezes it to donate or send back to the manufacturer. Breads are also donated to local churches and food pantries, as well as canned goods and some produce. Publix also works with Feeding America to keep track of the millions of pounds of product donated into communities across the Southeast.

But not all food can be donated. Some food is still thrown out because of concern over food-borne illnesses.

“When bacteria grow on food, they are going to change it. And they’ll either change the food itself because they’re breaking it down and attacking it because they’re eating it as well, and that might in a few cases, make the food dangerous,” says John Davis.

John Davis is a professor of Microbiology at Columbus State University. He says the food illness where you are sick for a day or two is caused by bacteria releasing toxins in or on the food you have eaten. The way to avoid it is by keeping your food in an environment bacteria do not like.

“Bacteria can’t regulate their temperature. They rely completely on the environment for temperature regulation. So that means they’ll be able to do things faster when they’re warmer up to a certain degree. So something that would take them to do three to four hours at 70 degrees may take them three to four days at 40 degrees,” says Davis.

He says the way to lower bacterial growth in your food is to keep it refrigerated or cook it thoroughly. Most bacteria cannot survive in temperatures at or below 40 or over 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

food2Other methods for keeping food safe is to make sure to cool food if it is warm and transfer any food in large pots or pans to smaller, shallow containers in a refrigerator that has plenty of air circulation.

As far as reducing food waste, Burkenkamp has a few simple suggestions:

“For instance, it could look like having a grocery list before you go shopping so you know what you really need and don’t yet have in your refrigerator and you can buy accordingly,” says Burkenkamp

Burkenkamp also suggests having a shelf in your fridge for food that needs to be eaten first and making better use of your freezer.

“We live in a period of enormous amounts of waste. At the same time – they’re also people in our communities that don’t have enough food – so all of us can be involved in addressing those types of concerns by wasting less at home,” says Berkenkamp.

NRDC’s Save the Food campaign has a full list of tips to reduce your food footprint as well as turkey tips just in time for Thanksgiving here.

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