Food Safety: Do You Keep or Toss?
We've all had the experience of finding moldy surprises in the back of the refrigerator - leftovers that have lurked there so long that it's hard to determine what they once were. It hurts to throw away food. It's literally money down the drain. And there are probably plenty of foods in your 'fridge that have seen better days, but are still perfectly safe to eat. So how do you know whether to keep something or toss it?
A lot of people throw out perfectly safe food because they don't understand the dating system on food labels. So here's a quick run-down. You've probably noticed the "sell-by" dates on perishables, like meat, eggs and milk. Once that date passes, stores are supposed to pull these items from their shelves, and most people assume that the food shouldn't be eaten after that date, either. But that's not necessarily so.
Foods don't suddenly expire on the sell-by date. Milk can stay sweet, tasty and safe for a week or so after the sell-by date as long as it's been properly stored in the refrigerator. If it still tastes and smells fresh after the date on the carton, then keep it. Eggs can stay fresh and safe for 3-5 weeks after you buy them, which is likely to be long after the date stamped on the carton. Even a sealed package of highly perishable ground beef is safe to eat for a day or two after you buy it, even if the 'sell by' date has passed.
Those "use by", "best by" and "best before" dates that you see aren't even expiration or safety dates at all. In fact, they're not even required on the label. Manufacturers put them there to let you know that after that date, you might see changes in the food's quality, like texture or color, but it's still safe to eat. For instance, if you keep ketchup around long enough it'll turn brown. And while it may not be as attractive as it once was, it won't make you sick.
Food that's obviously bad shouldn't be eaten, of course. If you find moldy spots on soft or moist foods like bread or lunch meats, the food has got to go. But if you find a little spot of mold on firm veggies like cabbage, peppers or carrots, or on hard cheeses, you don't need to throw them out. Just cut out about an inch all around the moldy spot, and then it's safe to eat the rest.
When you shop, buy only what you know you can consume before the food spoils. Yes, larger packages usually are a better value than smaller ones, but not if the food is perishable and you end up throwing half away. Then, cook only what you know you'll eat, and think about how you'll use your leftovers. Plan to use them for another meal, pack them up for tomorrow's lunch, or put them in the freezer; not in the back of the refrigerator where you're sure to lose track of them.
Susan Bowerman is a paid consultant to Herbalife.