You just threw out a perfectly good gallon of milk because you think the “sell by” date means something


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Admit it: When you see milk past the “sell by” date in your fridge you’re apt to skip the smell test and throw that stuff out. What you might not know is that the date is actually meant for store stockers to keep track of product rotation. It offers little indication of when the milk may actually sour. You wouldn’t be alone in tossing out perfectly good milk. Nine out of 10 Americans needlessly throw away edible, unspoiled food based on “use by,” “sell by,” and “best before” labels, according to a report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School.

The problem of wasted food is serious and multifaceted. As Kiera Butler reported earlier this week, a whopping one-third of the global food supply is wasted. Not only that, but this discarded food is responsible for 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions. If food…

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2 thoughts on “You just threw out a perfectly good gallon of milk because you think the “sell by” date means something

  1. Food is simply too good to waste. Even the most sustainably farmed food does us no good if the food is never eaten. Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land. Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.http://www.nrdc.org/food/wasted-food.asp

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  2. The solution? A system of clear and consistent federally mandated labels for foods. Here are the authors’ three major recommendations:

    1. Sell by dates, only meant as business-to-business information, should be made invisible to consumers; only useful labels that indicate when the food will likely spoil should be stamped on packaging.

    2. Government should mandate a clear set of labels for consumers, with unambiguous language that clearly distinguishes between dates for safety and dates for quality. For instance a ready-to-eat sandwich should indicate the date by which it should be eaten, with a label saying something like “unsafe to eat after.” Date labels should be removed from non-perishable goods and replaced with quality-based dates with more general information about when the product peaks in taste.
    3. Date labels should be come with more information about safe food handling, including time and temperature exposure indicators. Ted Labuza, a co-author and food safety expert at the University of Minnesota, has argued for labels that indicate temperature changes of the product during shipping and handling.

    But the authors say consumers also have a responsibility to reduce the amount of wasted food. They offer a handy infographic for demystifying your fridge with tips such as never letting ice build up in the freezer, and keeping the fridge temperature below 40 degrees F. Labuza said he has kept milk fresh at that temperature for up to six weeks.

    Learning some of the tips that our grandparents used could be helpful too. For instance, this rule of thumb for eggs: If it sinks in a bowl of water, it’s good; if it floats, toss it out.

    Obviously, you want to toss anything that looks or smells rotten. In short, trust your senses, not the labels.

    This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Maggie Caldwell is a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones.

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