Expired Food? Just Follow Your Nose

When Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe's announced that he was planning on opening a discount grocery store that cared expired food earlier this week, the big question was "is it safe?" Americans have come to equate shelf life with food poisoning, a misconception that contributes to 40% ­-or $160 billion dollar's worth-of our food supply being trashed each year.

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"Food borne illness comes from the contamination of food by salmonella, Listeria, and other pathogens," agriculture and food expert Dana Gundners, who co-authored a recent report on food labeling by the National Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, tells Yahoo Shine. "They get on the food during production and processing. That's what leads to people being sick, not the age of the food."

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While most people think that food labeling is regulated, the Federal Food and Drug Administration only oversees the labeling of baby formula-the rest is at the discretion of the food producer or seller.

Widespread labeling came about during the 1970s, after the majority of consumers had transitioned from growing their own food or purchasing food from farms and local shops. "The demand for labels came out of a concern about freshness, they were never meant to be about safety," says Gunders. In fact, they aren't a guarantee of safety at all, since they were designed to indicate peak quality instead.

There are two types of food labels. "Sell by" dates are meant for retailers to indicate when the manufacturer recommends that they rotate stock. "Use by" or "best by" dates indicate freshness to the consumer. "For most products, its up to the manufacturer" says Gunders. "Some may use actual lab tests, but that's pretty rare. They might do consumer taste testing or they might guess according to how competitors are labeling."

In my own refrigerator, a sealed glass jar of salsa reads "best by April 24, 2014." What exactly happens on April 25? When it comes to eating so-called expired food, Gunders and other experts recommend using your eyes, nose, and healthy serving of common sense.

"Smell the food," food safety expert Ted Labuza, PhD, tells Yahoo Shine. Labuza, who teaches Food Science and Nutrition and the University of Minnesota says its OK to eat many foods after their use by dates if you are storing them properly and don't detect spoilage. The key to ensuring a longer shelf life is controlling the storage temperature and preventing exposure to moisture and oxygen.

Meat. Labuza keeps his refrigerator at 32-34 degrees, lower than the recommended 40 degrees. This gives meat a 50% longer shelf life. Labuza points out that stores don't scientifically determine the use by date of fresh meat, but follow what their competitors are doing.

Milk. Pasteurized milk also lasts 50% longer stored at a lower temperature.

Canned goods. The label generally gives a shelf life of about three years. If you keep cans in a cool place (not above the stove) they will last about seven years. Always discard dented cans.

Frozen food. "I never look at the dates, I just eat it," says Labuza. Freezing kills all of the microbes that cause spoilage although food will develop ice crystals (freezer burn) if there is an air space inside the packaging.

Dry goods such as crackers and corn chips. If they have a stale texture, crisp them up in a toaster oven. If they smell "barnyard-y" or rancid, the oils have spoiled and it's best to discard.

Eggs. Place in a bowl of water. If an egg floats, it's gone bad, but if it sinks, it's still edible.

Pasta. Keep pasta in clear packaging in a dark, cool place which will increase shelf life and also retain nutrients such as Riboflavin which are light sensitive.

Packaged greens. If your lettuce is wilted but not visibly decayed, you can revive it by soaking in ice water for about 10 minutes.

One caveat is prepared foods and processed meats that can pick up pathogens while being produced. Gunders warns that prepared foods such as a deli sandwich or processed meats can harbor Listeria that can proliferate even when stored in the refrigerator. Use quickly and never serve processed meats such as hot dogs or sausages (including those labeled pre-cooked) raw, especially to children, the elderly, or anyone who has a compromised immune system. Cooking will kill surface bacteria.

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