When Is Food Too Old to Eat?

During a visit with a friend in Anchorage, Alaska, I didn’t get to the supermarket for a few days after my arrival. Until then, I used the milk and oatmeal my hostess already had. When I mentioned that I’d be replacing what I used, she looked surprised.

“Uh, that’s really old milk,” she said. “I meant to warn you off it.”

It had tasted fine to me. That’s to say, it tasted about as good as nonfat milk ever tastes – like the water they used to wash a cow. All that mattered to me is that it loosened up the oats in the bowl.

I nearly changed my tune when I checked the “sell by” date: April 5. It was May 6. I was drinking milk a month past its prime.

Right about now your stomach may be curdling. The milk hadn’t, though. I think we throw food away way too easily in this country.

Not good enough

Before I came up for my two-month visit, I made a serious effort to clear out my freezer and cupboards. Since I date the food I freeze, I know that the ground beef had been cooked 11 months previously and that the whole fryer was about a year old. I made bread pudding using shredded coconut that I know is at least 4 years old. I stewed some rhubarb that was going on 5 years old.

They all turned out just fine. If the ground beef had been dry, I sure couldn’t tell after it was made into chili. The chicken produced copious pan juices. The rhubarb may (or may not) have been freezer-burned, but stewed and mixed with my homemade yogurt, the flavor was as sweet-tangy as I’d remembered from previous summers.

This isn’t to say that we should let our food get old. My goal is to create a better system so that the rhubarb doesn’t crouch down behind bags of frozen wild blackberries. But as a nation, we turn up our noses a little too easily at anything we think of as substandard.

I’ve heard of people who throw milk away based on the carton date. They don’t check to see if it has gone bad – they automatically toss it.

I’ve also heard from folks who throw away leftovers after two days. Seriously? Cooked food won’t go bad in two days unless the fridge is unplugged.

Why not freeze these things if you can’t finish them? Why waste them?

Meanwhile, back in Anchorage…

Last week, the curry I fixed was too thick. My hostess had said to use anything in the cupboard. She doesn’t cook very often, so I checked the date on the can of chicken broth.

You guessed it: old. Really old. As in “March 2002.”

But what we tend to call the “expiration date” doesn’t mean much of anything. They’re not even required by federal law, except on infant formula and certain types of baby foods. When you’re talking dry or canned goods, the date means the end of peak flavor. “It’s just a quality issue,” a USDA spokeswoman told me. (For more information, see this USDA fact sheet.)

The can wasn’t bulging, and there was no suspicious odor. I stirred it into the curry and ate the one-pot-glop results off and on for a week. I didn’t die. Not even a little bit.

I do have some standards. When mold grew on the last few slices of bread, I gave it a Christian burial. The previous day it had been merely stale, whereupon I turned it into French toast. I should have frozen the rest before it got moldy. Next time I will.

A former co-worker who grew up in various Alaska villages would have cut off the moldy part and eaten the rest. That’s too much even for cast-iron-stomach me. He and his family ate WWII powdered eggs up until the early 1960s.

I was raised by a mother whose family lived much of the year on garden produce, dry beans, biscuits, and white gravy – and by a father whose family ate whatever his mom could grow and his dad could shoot.

The way you look at food

I’m not saying that everyone has to eat the way I do. But I’m suggesting that you reconsider the way you look at “old” food, or at least at the buy-and-use practices that let food get old in the first place.

If your fridge is full of mouldering take-out containers, perhaps you could concentrate on finishing leftovers before bringing more food home? You could even learn basic cooking so you don’t spend so much money on food that you don’t even finish.

Like your grandma said, people are starving in Africa. They’re also starving in the United States. It’s unlikely that either group would check a sell-by date before eating. But it’s pretty likely that the close-dated milk is still good.

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