My Year of Eating “Expired” Food

I watch a lot of nature shows. I wonder sometimes how animals are able to eat only unwashed, raw food- and drink water from pretty much any source (my dog frequently quenches her thirst from the muddy puddles in the street and my cats drink from the toilet)- without getting sick. Some animals even eat other animals that have been dead in warm weather for days.

Also, I once read a book- Jack & Rochelle– about 2 holocaust survivors who escaped into the woods of Poland and survived for years. There were times when they had to eat carrion, to avoid starvation. They did not indicate that they fell ill.

Humans are living organisms. In the end, we’re animals too. I started wondering what our capabilities to successfully digest “unsafe” food might be.

My experiment began with this yogurt.

Consumed Oct. 1st, 2016.

I have an old cabin in Virginia. One spring, I accidentally left a yogurt in the fridge. I didn’t make it back down until the fall, when this picture was taken on October 1st, 2016. Note the expiration date is March 30th, 2016. That is 6 months past the expiration date! As I began to make my fruit smoothie, the yogurt was in the corner of my eye. I opened it. It smelled fine and there was no mold. I decided to throw it into the blender. I drank and waited. No problems!

This set off increasingly emboldened instances of eating food that was past date- some of it, REALLY past date- (including meat and dairy)! This past year, I documented my journey.

[click on images to enlarge]

Everyone can agree that food waste is bad. How bad? Decide for yourself. There is a lot of information online. This report from the NRDC is the most comprehensive I could find. It sums up the serious environmental consequences of wasted food: “When food is wasted, all of the resources used to produce, store, transport, and handle that food—including arable land, labor, energy, water, chemicals, and oil—are also wasted.”

Many people are taking action to reduce food waste, but very little is being done about Food Product Dating. As someone who has spent 30+ years in the grocery business, I believe the main culprit (and the easiest way to make the most progress)- is to overhaul our Food Product Dating system and guidelines. You wouldn’t believe the number of items that are returned by customers or thrown away because of a rather arbitrary date (even donated food is required to not be past date at some food banks).

A note on a bag left on my porch for a food drive for the hungry: “Check your cupboards or shop for unexpired canned items…”

These dates can include “use by”, “best if used by”, “sell by”, “best before”, “expires by”, “freeze by”, etc. The report describes the confusion these dates create: “Although most date labels are intended as indicators of freshness and quality, many consumers mistakenly believe that they are indicators of safety.”

It seems like there are arbitrary dates on everything these days. Canned goods can be eaten YEARS after the date. But not just canned goods have dates…

Dating has now been placed on salt, lotions, shampoos, hand soaps, hair color, toothpaste (Tom’s), shaving cream, and much more. Need to wipe your baby’s butt clean? Better not use these wipes after August 3rd, 2020…

It’s gotten so out of hand, it makes me wonder about the integrity of the manufacturers- they will slap a date on just about anything these days. “Planned obsolescence” by corporations and entire industries is real. When we throw a product away, corporations profit.

I’m a staunch environmentalist. I hate waste- especially environmental waste. Especially food waste. To this day, whenever I shop, I check dates like a hawk. Except, I’m searching for the products that are closest to their arbitrary date, because I was raised to do what I can to prevent things from going to waste. My pantry is filled with dented cans, crushed boxes, and packaged products where the label has fallen off. If you were ever to come to my house for dinner, the odds are good that something on the table is expired or damaged.

Here is a picture of what my family calls, “resetting food”.  

All of this meat was past date. Some of it was perfectly fine- no odor or visual sign of being old. Some of it had an odor when it initially came out of the package (the fish!), but a quick rinse removed it. By cooking the meat, we essentially reset its freshness date- we ate what we could that night and saved the rest for later.

It’s not surprising that this gift was exchanged at the Nash Family Christmas this past year…

During the week of Thanksgiving, myself and those of us in the farming and grocery industry were greatly pained to see romaine lettuce recalled and discarded by the megaton- in what seemed to be an hysterical move by the FDA. Thousands of farmers’ livelihoods are impacted and threatened when there is such an extreme response. I served my family a large Caesar Salad on Thanksgiving, knowing that the odds of getting sick from that romaine were far less than the odds of being killed in a car accident on the way home.

I was proud that not a single family member of the dozen or so at the table (including the teenagers) passed up the salad, even though everyone knew about the recall. In my opinion, Americans and our institutions have a bona fide case of anxiety disorder when it comes to food safety.

The Food Product Dating system for food (and non-edible goods) needs to be revised. Consistency in labeling (use one term for quality such as “best by” or “for best quality, use by” and another term for food safety such as “expires by”) would create clarity. And these dates need to be set to match reality. Some items don’t need a date at all- like salt, canned goods, and baby wipes.

In the meantime my fellow Americans (yes, we in the USA are the biggest offenders of food waste), please get informed and change your behavior. We are all responsible for making a difference- and EVERY piece of saved food counts.

This entry was posted in business, environment, Living, waste. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to My Year of Eating “Expired” Food

  1. Michael T says:

    The salt thing was the heartiest laugh I have had in a while…

  2. DAVID W LA VOY says:

    A thoughtful, important account, written with perspective and humor. Thanks for raising this issue in graphic detail. If you will pardon the pun, it’s food for thought.

  3. Ellen says:

    FINALLY the sound of reason! Thank you My children and I were just talking about expiration dates and how it is arrived at the other day, Being raised in South Florida – my parents had 6 kids and I remember my Southern Bell mother cutting off all kinds of stuff from cheese and meats. If it didn’t smell we ate it. The ex dating while perhaps well intended (although I suspect not) has resulted in unnecessary waste of a precious commodity. I have passed this article along to my adult children. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront. PS Loved the Salt expiration – too funny.

  4. Suzanne Nash says:

    We ARE the compost pile in this family! Another important reminder is medicines. Almost all of them are good for years past the “expiration date.” Their effectiveness will be reduced minimally as each year or so goes by but only a small amount. Save those epi pens, folks. They’ve jacked up the prices and as Scott can attest to, they are still useful at stopping an anaphylactic reaction years later. (Thank you to my friend who gave me her child’s old pens so my husband would have something at hand when needed, p.s. go to the doctor and get a refill dear).

  5. MT says:

    Hi Scott,
    A related side-topic worth mentioning is the storing/consumption of left-over food.

    I just noticed in a cookbook where at the end of all the recipes it repeats the helpfully intended and innocent sounding “Cover/refrigerate left-overs and consume within 2 days.” I suspect plenty of others replicate this ‘wisdom.’ Of course, it is complete nonsense, as fully cooked food stored refrigerated should easily last at least a week without concern.

  6. Doug Percival says:

    Yes, food waste is bad — but consuming meat and dairy products is FAR more wasteful. According to a peer-reviewed study published April 2018 in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (pay particular attention to the final sentence):

    “With a third of all food production lost via leaky supply chains or spoilage, food loss is a key contributor to global food insecurity. Demand for resource-intensive animal-based food further limits food availability. In this paper, we show that plant-based replacements for each of the major animal categories in the United States (beef, pork, dairy, poultry, and eggs) can produce twofold to 20-fold more nutritionally similar food per unit cropland. Replacing all animal-based items with plant-based replacement diets can add enough food to feed 350 million additional people, more than the expected benefits of eliminating all supply chain food loss.”

    You can read the complete study at the link below:
    https://www.pnas.org/content/115/15/3804

    • MT says:

      Often the overlooked or outright ignored issue with claims like this: “nutritionally similar food” / “Replacing all animal-based items with plant-based replacement diets” is that humans haven’t evolved over untold years to eat ‘similar/replacement’ diets…history is littered with ideas implemented in order to fix one problem *a certain way* that unintentionally created other problems that couldn’t be foreseen until the damage was done and in most cases irreversible.

      • Doug Percival says:

        Hello MT,

        Thank you for your reply. I would encourage you to read the study that I linked to. It explains in detail what the study means by “nutritionally similar food”.

        Since Scott’s blog post is about food waste, I want to stay focused on that and not launch into a long digression about nutrition. But I will offer a few brief points:

        1. In regard to evolution, human beings are anatomically and physiologically herbivorous primates, like our closest evolutionary relatives, the other Great Apes. Our digestive systems are completely unlike those of obligate carnivores (e.g. cats) or true omnivores (e.g. dogs and bears). We are optimized by evolution for digesting plant foods, and poorly suited for digesting flesh.

        2. All of the nutrients needed for optimal health, strength and longevity are abundantly available from fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and other non-animal sources. There is no necessity to get those nutrients from animal sources, and no benefit from doing so. Decades of overwhelming scientific evidence show that plant-based diets promote and support health, and that eating anything more than tiny amounts of meat and dairy on a regular basis increases the risk of multiple, serious, potentially lethal diseases.

        The choice to eat meat and/or dairy products is exactly that — a choice. It is not a necessity for health; on the contrary. And like many personal choices that we all make regarding the food we eat (and many other things), it is a choice that has serious and far-reaching consequences for the world we live in as well as for our own health.

      • MT says:

        “anatomically and physiologically herbivorous”: I suggest you may be neglecting dentition, for one, which rather suggests omnivorousness.

        “optimized by evolution for digesting plant foods, and poorly suited for digesting flesh”: in addition to enzymatic capacity, I think digestion is largely a function of relative intestinal length and so even if granting a point that humans are optimized for plants, that is very much not the same thing as being ‘poorly suited’ for the other, rather the other is subsumed quite easily. However, the converse is true, that carnivores are poorly suited for digesting plants, since they lack the enzymes and the length/time necessary to break down plant cellular material.

        “all the nutrients needed for optimal health . . . are abundantly available from . . . non-animal sources”: even if ‘all’ were technically true, use of ‘abundant’ here surely is an embellishment or at least misplaced, given that it implies superior ease of access and therefore neglects that all humans are not genetically identical in needing the same things in the same form, nor of equal means spatially and financially to more obscure products that might be necessary to supply said nutrients that might otherwise be easily available to them via animal products.

        “eating anything more than tiny amounts of meat and dairy on a regular basis increases the risk of [poor health]”: I agree this is now incontrovertible. Actually I’ve suggested elsewhere a very substantive reduction in usage for anyone that does consume animal products, so instead of an 8oz steak or half-pound burger, consumers should get satisfied with 1oz; ditto no more full-size chicken breasts forming the majority of a meal, but rather a 1oz garnish to what is other wise a plate full of plant stuff. That would be a compromise that doesn’t eliminate the use of animal products entirely as some would want, but would still yield a absolutely massive ~85% reduction in consumption, and therefore the drain on the earth’s ability to yield, and consequences/costs on health, as you mentioned. Even as difficult as that sounds on paper, I suggest it’s still immensely more achievable than trying to convince billions of people of a different persuasion to choose to become vegan.

  7. chelsea dreyer says:

    I’ve been living off “expired” food since I started working at MOM’s two years ago and I haven’t gotten sick since. Even if something has a bit of a “fermented” taste, it’s usually still fine.

  8. LORRAINE PECK says:

    It is often mind over fear – each time I eat something that is “expired” I move past the fear. Good info Scott.

  9. Mabelyn says:

    peeped this on the hive! love it! I’m stoked that you are a fellow blogger! writing is life!

  10. via Rell says:

    I’m certain most of our late elders didn’t have a food expiration dating system, I know my grandmother from Mississippi didn’t allow us to waste food so if the odds were something became expired we had to use it. Or if we gave her a ounce of reason that we didn’t want to use foods that expired she would cook with it anyway and to our surprise she would jokfully say you know I made that with that expired milk to validate her statement. Everyone in Arlington NL know that I ask for light in all of my proportions and some may think it’s because I’m trying to watch my weight but truthfully it’s to prevent food waste on my end because I hate wasting/getting food I know I don’t intend on eating in one sitting. So this will light a new light 💡 to see how I can be more conscious about my decisions of using expired foods to help end unnecessary food waste.

    -Very insightful and definitely sharing ☺️

  11. Wendy says:

    Our local food bank, Manna, is on this! Note that they do share expired foods: https://www.mannafood.org/give-food/donate-food-to-manna/

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