Monday, March 7, 2011

Past-Due Food: Smell it. Then Eat it.

I was nearly jumping for joy when I saw an article in today's New York Times vindicating me for using food past its due date.  My daughters consider anything with a "sell by" in the coming week inedible.  Doesn't matter if it looks and smells fine--if it's beyond those numbers printed on the can or carton, it's outta here.

I thought I'd taught them not to waste perfectly good food. But no.  If they catch me cooking with something "old" (to them that translates to "disgusting"), they won't touch it.  Leftovers in the fridge beyond a week?  Garbage.  Hermetically sealed veggie "meat," a bag of dried lentils, uncooked mac-and-cheese with that packet of "cheesy" powder sauce?  That stuff, I maintain, lasts.  But no, if the "best by" date has passed, it's history.

I will not tell them how much "expired" foodstuffs they have consumed--and loved!--over the years.  They'd vomit.

Bruce Feiler describes his own battle of the due-dates as a major marital irritant.  He's in my camp, willing to trust his senses to tell him what's still good.  And he marshaled lots of evidence for our position. For example, he quotes Ethel Tiersky, editor of, who says dates are about optimum quality, not safety. "Virtually nothing in your refrigerator jeopardizes your health," she says. "The pathogens that cause food to look bad, smell bad or taste bad are not the ones that make you sick."  So there.

He noted that manufacturers themselves decide what to stamp on their containers--no federal regulating body is involved (except for baby formula). The rules that exist in just 20 of our 50 states are "mostly for dairy products, and usually to control how long products can be kept in stores, not how long they should be kept in your refrigerator."

He brought up the issue of needless waste which, by the way, is contrary to Jewish law.  "Bal tashchis"--not wasting--is a commandment, though when it comes to dated food, it's not a fave of my daughters.  Americans now discard 1,400 calories per day per person, according to the National Institutes of Health, a pitch-rate that's soared 50% since 1974.  No wonder--now your purchases give you guilt and fear of violating digits stamped on their labels.

Our local food bank regularly puts out pleas to help restock its shelves.  But they won't accept anything beyond its marked expiration--even seeming non-perishables like pasta.  Right now I have in my pantry a cardboard cylinder of table salt with an expiration date.  I have a jar of honey with a "best by" date on it.  Do salt and honey go bad?  I google'd the questions. An archaeologist wrote that he had tasted 2,000-year-old honey that was still delicious.  (The "best by" stamp on my jar fell a tad short of that.)  Salt, I discovered, is a preservative. It cannot spoil.  Tell that to the girl with the umbrella.  Never mind: tell that to my daughters.

My fave story in the article describes the company that bought up 1.6 million bottles of expired salad dressing.  The company advanced the date a year and sold the bottles.  Charged with fraud, it won exoneration on appeal because the dressing was perfectly good; in fact, the judge deemed salad dressing so "shelf stable" that "it has no expiration date."

There's a charming chain of Japanese "100-yen" stores called Daiso with outlets near me. I love the store for its fractured English packaging and its extremely odd five-and-dime products, some of which are unidentifiable.  It has a sizable section of comestibles for sale under a big sign: Expired Food.  I never see a crowd there.  But what do you expect for 100 yen?

My daughter was making dessert the other day and needed an egg for a recipe.  The carton had a "sell by" two days before.  "Oooh!" she squealed, wrinkling her brow, "throw these out right away!"  Who is the mother here?  But she was about to toss the entire bowl of flour, sugar and oil, so I rushed and found a newer carton of eggs.  However, for her (and your) egg-ification, I now quote the USDA Food Product Dating Fact Sheet: "For best quality, use eggs within 3 to 5 weeks of the date you purchase them. The 'sell-by' date will usually expire during that length of time, but the eggs are perfectly safe to use."

Got that? Perfectly safe.

I do advocate this leftover food rule: "when in doubt, throw it out."  I take a whiff in the milk carton every time, no matter the "use by" date. But so many times I'm not in doubt.  It's just the ookey-pookey sensitivity of my children that causes problems.  At times, I've been tempted to, um, exaggerate when my daughter asks suspiciously, point-blank, "When was the due-date on this?" but I've never brought myself to actually lie in order to save a bottle of mustard.  I do try to avoid confrontation.

Am I the only mom who can't bear to waste perfectly good food just because her children have learned to read numbers?  Aren't we smart enough nowadays to evaluate what's edible and what's not?  Why have companies created their own "nanny state" in my kitchen?  And especially now--as food prices seem to be escalating more quickly than they have in several years--shouldn't we be thinking of "bal tashchis" as a virtue worth cultivating?


  1. So nice to know I am not alone. Thanks for posting.

  2. i was JUST having this discussion with my 80 yr-old father last night over dinner (right when Tom Selleck walked by with his lovely bride Jillie). he will keep leftovers in the fridge forEVER and I (well, being a Gen X cat) will toss everything w/in 2 days of putting it in the fridge.

    so ... there's the question. re: sell-by dates, you make a great argument. but what about AFTER the can or jar of whatever has been opened (except the salt and honey dealio ... even i know about them). that seems to me to be where the "safe question" arises. when does the leftover lamb chops, tuna with eggs in the bowl, lasagna go bad, sitting in the fridge in the dark after the little man has flipped the switch when we shut the door. as i said, i have a 2-day rule for the take-home from our local restaurant ... and i especially don't want my octogenarian father coming down with some intestinal ailment.

    great post!

  3. LIBEL! The daughter in question was not even making dessert with the offensive eggs... I was making egg salad, so the freshness of the eggs was vastly more relevant.

  4. Oh thank you all for making me laugh!

    Jg, I love your comment; I do think the smell test comes first, then the taste-from-the pinky. If both pass, dig in.
    Leftovers in the fridge can easily last two weeks. They really can. Depending on what it is, of course.

    Shayna, if the eggs are perfectly good, they're perfectly good. For dessert OR egg salad.

  5. Just saw this one. It could have been written about our house. Except after sailing the Pacific without refrigeration, and finding out how long food can stay good under those circumstances, I push things much further than you.

  6. I sure can relate to this post. My daughter-in-law tosses everything on the printed date. Since she and my son are staying with us for awhile before they get into grad school, I have to ask her not to throw some things out--celery, lemons. I'm not sure I can get her to go for the sniff test. I always, smell and look for mold. We were just debating if Blue Cheese dressing is still good past the date--no new mold growing, so I give it the thumbs up. thanks for the info.

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