Dear Dot: Can I use food past its expiration date?

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Dear Dot,

How accurate are the best-before dates on packages? What can I do with non-compostable food, like meat and cheese and yogurt that have gone bad?

–J.K.

Dear J.K.,

Just last week I unearthed a block of blue cheese that was past its prime (although, of all cheeses, blue is the one least identifiable as such). Its ‘best before’ read October 13, 2020, so it was, indeed, best long before. 

But was it unsafe? Inedible? Well…

Turns out those various labels — “best before”, “sell by”, “use by” — have nothing to do with food safety. They are based on lab tests that determine when a food supposedly tastes its best. Those of us without the palate of a food critic mightn’t notice any difference. But because there’s such widespread misunderstanding, as well as, in some cases, government mandates that won’t allow stores to sell products beyond those arbitrary dates, there’s tons of food waste. Literally. According to a United Nations food agency study, one billion tons get tossed annually –  that’s ⅓ of all the food in the world. Discover magazine crunched some numbers in the U.S. and determined that the average household wastes almost $2,000 annually on food waste. This food typically goes to landfill where it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

The Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 (yes, it most certainly is now 2022 but this legislation is still not beyond its “best before” date) aims to create a standard terminology. “Best if used by” is proposed as the phrasing for food whose taste might be sub optimum after that day, and “Use by” is proposed as the phrasing for food that is unsafe if eaten beyond that date.

A lot of our food waste is fruits and vegetables, so buy in appropriate quantities and store them properly. 

While we’re waiting (and waiting) for labels that reflect a food’s safety, we can do like our ancestors and rely on our senses. If something looks, smells, and feels okay, it probably is. That includes milk, which can typically be consumed one week — even two — past its “best before” date. Once it has gone truly sour, you’ve got buttermilk on your hands. Bake a lemon cake! Make pancakes! For your meat concerns, there’s a USDA “meat and poultry” hotline at 1-888-674-6854 that vets about 50,000 questions a year so they’ve probably got a beefy response to yours.

Even the most diligent among us will have some food waste. I used to feed apple cores to our pet rabbit until I learned that the seeds contain trace amounts of arsenic and can be deadly to small pets (whoopsie! Fortunately, Wilbur survived my mistake and lived a good long life, dying, no kidding, on Easter). So into the compost the cores went. Wilbur also became soil. 

Yogurt, cheese (salvage moldy hard or semi-soft cheese by cutting off the mold; moldy soft cheese is truly waste), and spoiled meat cannot go into your backyard compost. But IGI will happily compost it. They don’t want your oyster, clam, little neck, or mussel shells but the MV Shellfish Group does. Anything containing oil or grease is a hard no – it’s trash. Put it in a separate container and toss it. 

I plan on using some wilted greens to make a soup later today, into which I will also toss a somewhat soft (but still edible!) red pepper. Bon appetit! 

Lastingly, 

Dot

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