We go through a lot of food here in the US; some 815 billion calories per day. Unfortunately, about 200 billion of those calories of food are wasted. That’s something like 200,000 tons of food; enough to feed 80 million people. But why is this so? Are we just a wasteful society, as some say, or is there something behind all this waste?
Some estimates say that as much as 40% of the food in this country is wasted, thrown away because it is supposedly bad. Food is wasted in every step of the process, from the farms that grow it and fishing boats which catch it, to the packing houses that prepare our food and the distribution system that gets that food to market.
One part of this massive waste of food comes from the food service industry. Restaurants are tightly regulated in what they can do with leftover food. They can’t, for example, serve the mashed potatoes you didn’t eat to someone else. That food must be disposed of, as a hygienic measure in an effort to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Likewise, food that is not used must be disposed of, once it has gone past its expiration date.
The only way for restaurants to prevent those problems is to make only the exact amount of food that will be consumed. That requires a level of prognostication that is unrealistic to meet.
While restaurants don’t want to throw any food away, as that comes out of the bottom line, they also don’t want to run out of food and lose the income from patrons who decide to go elsewhere.
Restaurants only account for a minor portion of the food wasted in this country; the majority of it is wasted in households; some 76 billion pounds of food per year. This is 40 to 50 percent of the total food waste in our country.
Why Does This Happen?
There are a number of reasons. But one man, Scott Nash, the owner of the 19 grocery stores comprising Mom’s Organic Market, decided to do an experiment.
This experiment started out by accident. Nash had been visiting his cabin, when he wanted a smoothie. Looking in the refrigerator, he found some yogurt that he had left there six months earlier. Even though it was six months beyond the “expiration date”, the yogurt looked and smelled good, so he used it to make himself a smoothie. The smoothie was fine and he didn’t’ suffer any problems from consuming that “old” yogurt.
This led Scott to start an ongoing experiment, where he decided to ignore the expiration dates on food, as long as it looked good to eat.
Through the following year, 365 days, he ate canned goods that were beyond their use by date, old milk and eggs. He even ate lunchmeat that was two or three months past its expiration date and beef that was a couple of weeks past its drop dead date.
In all of this, Scott never had a single problem caused by eating supposedly expired food.
How Can This Be?
This experiment has led Mr. Nash to the conclusion that the supposed expiration dates on our food are largely arbitrary, created by the processing plants and packagers partially to protect themselves from liability and partially in an effort at planned obsolescence. It is only the last date that they will guarantee the food’s suitability for consumption.
Adding that date to packages of food cause people to throw away perfectly good food, just because they haven’t used it yet. A 2016 survey found that 84% of consumers admit to throwing good food away, because it had gone past the date stamped on the label.
Some foods, such as canned goods, really have no expiration date. Canning is one of the best means of food preservation there is. The food is contained in an impermeable sealed container, from which all bacteria has either been removed or killed. Insects and rodents, the other two big food spoilers can’t eat through the container, so there is nothing to make the food go bad.
Related: Canning Amish Poor Man’s Steak
Yet canned goods are all stamped with an expiration date, giving the consumer a year at best to use it, or at least that’s the way that it appears to the average consumer. In fact, those dates we all take as expiration dates really aren’t that at all. Rather, manufacturers stamp a “best by” date on their products, encouraging us to use them quickly. But there is nothing that says that food will go bad on or even near that date. Most foods will last well beyond it.
Scott Nash’s experiment has led him on a crusade to educate people about these phony dates. It’s not that he has anything against expiration dates. It’s just that he doesn’t like fake ones. He’d like to see the current system revamped, providing expiration dates that actually mean something. In the mean time, he continues eating food that has gone beyond the manufacturer’s “best by” date and encourages others to do the same.
In reality, there have been canned foods which were opened after 60 or 80 years and have been found to still be perfectly edible. Those are the most extreme examples out there. We can’t expect milk and eggs to stay good for years after the expiration date; but it helps to know that the date they put on the package is at least a week before those foods will even start to go bad.
The same can be said for beef in our grocer’s meat department. Beef will discolor fairly quickly, if left in the cooler case too long. But that doesn’t affect the quality of the beef, only its appearance. It is still perfectly edible. I personally buy a lot of beef that way, because the butcher marks the price down.
Can Food Go Bad?
Absolutely. But we can’t count on those dates to tell us when it does. Rather, we need to use our senses to see what condition the food is in. If it looks good and smells good, it probably is good. But if it looks and smells bad, it may not be worth eating.
Take the two cans pictured below. These came from my personal food stockpile and both of them clearly have gone bad. We can tell that because the mold or bacteria which has grown on the food is visible from the outside of the can.How could this happen with canned foods, the same foods I was touting earlier as being preserved in an almost perfect way? It’s hard to see from the angle I took these pictures, but both of these are cans of fruit, acidic fruit to be specific. That played a part in the process.
Cans for acidic foods are manufactured with a thin film on the inside, coating the metal and keeping the acid from coming into contact with it. (This may be true of other canned foods as well, but the only ones I have personally checked are for acidic foods.) That film is very thin and could possibly become damaged during the manufacturing process or at the cannery. If that happens, the acid in the food would have access to the metal, eating away at it and making a hole in the can.
Once that happens, the can has lost its integrity and bacteria can get into it. This is why we are told to make sure that the can lid isn’t puffed up, before opening it. Of course, in the two examples I encountered above, the damage is obvious without looking for a puffy lid, so it’s clear that the food is not safe to consume.
What this means is that we have a fail-safe built into the system. As long as the can is intact, it is safe for use. It doesn’t matter what the expiration date says. Just watch out for that convex lid and make sure the can doesn’t have any strange growths on the outside, like the ones I found in my pantry.
So, what about you? Have you ever tried what Scott Nash has and eaten food, knowing it was past the supposed “expiration date”? How long would it have to be beyond that point before you wouldn’t eat it? How does that affect your survival strategy?
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