Where Chivalry Meets Food Safety

by Kevin Burton

   As I’m sure you can imagine, I was a bachelor gallant.  

  “There is a level of food that I will eat but I will not serve to you,” I told Jeannette when we started dating and she began peering with some alarm into the abyss of my science-project refrigerator.

   That remains true. I hate to waste food. Hate it. This is on at least two levels.

   For one, when I carry home a can of Bush’s Best brown sugar hickory baked beans, I am purchasing 100 percent of the product. Consumption of anything less shrinks my grocery dollar. 

   Second, about 42 million people in the United States live in food insecurity or hunger, according to an article written by Alissa Wilkinson on www.vox.com.

   Watching people order a meal, eat four or five bites, then have the wait staff toss the rest out – no doggie bag – drives me crazy.

     We have all been guilty of letting leftovers drift to the back of the fridge. Maybe we ordered pizza when the leftovers didn’t seem too appetizing. I am always disappointed when that food goes bad, reluctant to give up on it.

   Jeannette probably should have written some age-of-food language into our wedding vows. 

   In my defense, food waste is a big problem, at the macro and micro levels. 

    “Every year, the average American family throws out somewhere between $1,365 and $2,275, (in food products) according to a landmark 2013 study co-authored by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council,” Wilkinson writes. 

   “The study found that 25 percent of fresh water in the US goes toward producing food that goes uneaten, and 21 percent of input to our landfills is food, which represents a per-capita increase of 50 percent since 1974. Right now, landfills are piled high with wasted food, most of which was perfectly fine to eat — and some of which still is,” Wilkinson wrote.

   OK, so here Wilkinson has reached one of my unbending food rescue limits: I will not retrieve food from a landfill.

   The thrust of her article is that being too slavishly dependent on food expiration dates has contributed greatly to food waste.

   “Researchers have found that “expiration” dates — which rarely correspond to food actually expiring or spoiling — are mostly well-intentioned, but haphazard and confusing,” Wilkinson writes.

   “Put another way, they’re not expiration dates at all. And the broader public’s misunderstanding about them is a major contributor in wasted food, wasted revenue, wasted household income, and food insecurity.”

    A little internet research could leave your head spinning, wondering what to do about foods of questionable vintage. There is this from www.ask.usda.gov.

   “Foods that deteriorate and develop unpleasant odors, tastes and textures are spoiled. Spoilage bacteria can cause fruits and vegetables to get mushy or slimy, or meat to develop a bad odor.  Most people would not choose to eat spoiled food. However, if they did, they probably would not get sick.”

   Did you pick up on the “probably” there?  Way to go USDA!

    What I call the ‘smell test” is called the sniff test in a food safety article on www.theconversation.com.

   “Often when a food has spoiled, it will smell bad. This leads many to believe no stench equals OK to eat. But this isn’t always the case.”

   “The microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts and molds) that spoil food by making it smelly, slimy or moldy might not give you food poisoning. But pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria, such as salmonella, campylobacter, E.coli and listeria, which do make people sick, don’t always cause obvious changes in food when they grow.”

   Well I will continue to use the smell test.  It has never failed me, but I failed it once, by not heeding its warning. 

   Once my party of four approached an open air market somewhere in northern Mexico.  I could smell this market before I could see it.  You getting this picture? 

   The goat cheese from that market did to me, what untold amounts of Mexican water never did.

   I briefly worked at a snack shop that didn’t sell goat cheese but did adhere strictly to the expiration dates on its products. One of my tasks was to remove expired products from the shelves and coolers.

    But those products were perfectly good and the staff was encouraged to divide them and take them home. 

   “There are two vital facts to know about date labels on foods in the US: They’re not standardized, and they have almost nothing to do with food safety,” Wilkinson writes.

   I will trust a cake mix that is out of date, or pasta for example. I will not trust any dairy product or meat. 

   But no matter what, it’s only the very best for my wife.  The scientific experiments are on my plate.

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