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…

A gift given this year at Nash family Christmas.

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.