September is National Food Safety Education Month, and the government is trying to tell consumers that is is possible to reduce food waste while still eating safe food. Every year, there are about 48,000,000 cases of food poisoning in the United States. That leads to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. But food waste is also a major concern.
Every year, 80% of our freshwater, 10% of the available energy, and half of our land is used to get food to our tables. And organic waste, mostly food, is the second biggest component of landfills. Landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions, which contribute to climate change.
Since 30 to 40% of food in the U.S. is thrown out, we are contributing to climate change and wasting a lot of money. Americans discard about $165,000,000,000 of food every year.
Much of the food wasted is thrown away because of concerns about food safety. While it is certainly prudent to throw away moldy vegetables or bread, many packaged products are discarded while they are still perfectly safe to eat. Except for infant formula, dates on food products are not required by any federal law, although some states do have those regulations.
Most of the dates on foods are for perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, fresh eggs, and fresh fruits and veggies that are likely to quickly become unsafe to eat if not kept below 40°F. These dates are to help consumers use the products while they are at their best quality.
A Sell by date indicates that a product should not be sold after that date for best quality. A Use by or Best by date is the manufacturer’s estimate of how long a product will stay at its best quality. These are quality dates, not safety dates. If stored properly, a food product should be safe, wholesome, and of good quality after its Use by or Best by date.
The government has developed the FoodKeeper App, developed by the USDA, Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute. It is a complete guide to how long every food for sale in the U.S. will keep in the pantry, fridge, and freezer. You can download this app at Foodsafety.gov. For example, apples should last 3 weeks at room temperature, but ground beef should be consumed within one or two days of being stored in the fridge.
You can also avoid wasting food by becoming aware of how much you throw away. Of course, if a product is recalled because of possible bacterial contamination or because it contains an undeclared food you are allergic to, discard it. But don’t buy more food than can be used before it spoils. Plan meals and always use a shopping list when you go to the grocery store.
Avoid impulse purchases, especially for products that do have a limited shelf life. Think carefully about bulk purchases that may end up in the trash.
And when eating out, think about what you are ordering. If you aren’t hungry, order smaller portions. Bring the leftovers home and refrigerate them promptly. Check with the FoodKeeper App to see how long they will be safe to eat.