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Should You Toss That Food? Let Your Senses Help You Decide

As the FDA considers changing 'best by' labels, here's how to take control of your fridge

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No one wants to waste food. Yet 90 percent of us are guilty of occasionally throwing out still-fresh food, which makes up the majority of what's dumped in our landfills.

Worse, once there, items from our fridge rot and release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. At least part of the reason we toss out too much, experts say, is some understandable confusion over when food goes bad and what “best by” or “use by” labels printed on packages actually mean.

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With the exception of infant formula, such labels are not federally regulated. "Manufacturers set shelf-life dates to assure quality, but those dates are only best estimates and depend on the food,” says Donald W. Schaffner, an extension specialist in food science and distinguished professor at Rutgers University. “A given food consumed after its ‘best before’ date may taste just fine.”

To help clarify things, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement in May supporting the food industry's efforts to standardize the use of the term “Best If Used By” on packaged food. But if we can't depend on the dates stamped on our food to tell us when it's time to throw it out, how do we decide what to pitch and what to keep?

Use your senses to detect food spoilage

"The best way to detect whether food is still good is by relying on your senses,” says Yvette Cabrera, project manager of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Food Matters initiative, which partners with cities to reduce food waste. “Smell it, taste it. Use what your body gave you in order to figure out if something's spoiled or not.” If you're unsure, don't risk it. “We do want people to not waste food, but our general guideline is: When in doubt throw it out,” says FDA spokesperson Paul Cassell.

Understand that spoiled doesn't mean contaminated

"There is often a misconception that spoiled food will make you sick,” Schaffner says. “Generally, the bacteria that spoil food are not the same bacteria that make us sick. A food can be spoiled but also be pathogen-free. A food may also contain pathogens but not be overtly spoiled.” Milk is a great example. When it's spoiled, it smells and tastes really bad, but because it's pasteurized, drinking it won't make you ill (though it may make you gag). As a matter of fact, sour milk can be great in recipes such as sour-milk corn bread or sour-milk pancakes.

Store food correctly to avoid illness

Optimal storage conditions are more important than sell-by dates when it comes to food safety. Even if the date expires during home storage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines say that a product should be “safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below."

Bacteria multiplies rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, something that can happen anytime, regardless of the date on the package. If refrigerated at the proper temperature, safe storage ranges for some common items include:

  • Ground meats, fresh poultry: 1 to 2 days
  • Fresh beef, veal, lamb and pork (roasts, chops and steaks): 3 to 5 days
  • Lunch meat, opened package/deli sliced: 3 to 5 days; unopened package: 2 weeks
  • Leftovers: 3 to 4 days
  • Cut fruit: 4 days
  • Hard-boiled eggs: 1 week
  • Chopped vegetables stored in an air-tight container: 1 week
  • Pasteurized milk: 1 week beyond sell-by date
  • Raw eggs in shell: 3 to 5 weeks
  • Soft cheese, opened: 2 weeks. If mold develops, toss it.
  • Hard cheese, opened: 3 to 4 weeks. If it develops a blue-green mold on the exterior, cut away the mold plus an additional half inch below it.

A note about produce: Visibly aging produce can emit gases that speed the ripening of other produce. Use immediately or compost it.

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Know that you can't smell or taste contamination

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This is where things get tricky. Salmonella, listeria and other foodborne pathogens are stealthy and, unfortunately, older people are more likely to get ill from them. Lessening your risk takes knowledge about the proper handling of food and where such pathogens are most likely to show up.

According to the FDA, deli meats, hot dogs, smoked seafood, anything made with unpasteurized milk, store-prepared deli salads and ready-to-eat foods are at risk of contamination. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adhering to four chief tenets when handling food to avoid illness: Clean, separate, cook and chill.

  • Clean hands, utensils, cutting boards, counters and fresh fruits and veggies even if you plan to cut or peel them. “If a melon has salmonella on the outside, and it's cut, this will transfer the pathogen to the surface of the cut melon,” Schaffner says.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from ready-to-eat foods in both your refrigerator and grocery basket, and use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Cook to the right internal temperature. Use a thermometer and this chart to tell you what that temperature should be.
  • Chill perishable food within two hours (one hour if it's above 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside) and thaw frozen food in cold water in the fridge or in the microwave, never on the countertop.
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Make good use of your freezer

Doing so can extend the life of some foods up to a year. And the array of foods that can be frozen may surprise you — flour, milk, cheese, eggs (not in their shell), to name a few. Of course, some foods work better than others. Cooked meals tend to freeze well in airtight containers. Foods with high moisture content, such as salad greens, tomatoes or watermelon are not recommended as they tend to become mushy when frozen and thawed. If the texture does change, consider using the food in sauces or other cooked dishes. “Frozen cheese is perfectly fine to melt on a burger or for mac and cheese, but if you're planning to thaw it and eat it by itself, that may not be the best experience for you,” Cassell says.

Most items are easy to freeze — just put them into an airtight container to avoid freezer burn. Fruits and veggies, however, benefit from blanching, which preserves their quality, color and vitamin content. And, as long as you defrost properly, you can actually refreeze food.

So how long can food sit in the freezer before you consume it? Here's a rough guide for some common items:

  • Soups, stews and cooked beans: 2 to 3 months
  • Cooked or ground meat and poultry: 3 to 6 months
  • Berries and chopped fruit: 6 to 8 months
  • Vegetables, if blanched: 8 to 12 months (depending on the vegetable)

Get creative

Next time you're about to pitch something, take a moment to think of alternate uses. Mushy and brown fruits and leftover pulp can be used for baking or smoothies. Carrot trimmings, celery leaves, parsley stems, mushroom stems and onion skins can be used to make a stock. Stale bread can be toasted and made into bread crumbs or croutons. Even wilted veggies can be revived by soaking them in ice water for 10 to 20 minutes. Red wine, that has turned acidic can be cooked down into a pasta sauce.

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