Cutting Food Waste and Maintaining Food Safety
Sep 15, 2016
National Food Safety Education Month 2016
September is National Food Safety Education Month, a good time to think about how to reduce the enormous burden of food waste while minimizing the risks of foodborne illness.
Food safety is a major concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually—the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans each year. And each year these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
The Challenge of Food Waste
Food waste is also a major concern. Wasted food is a huge challenge to our natural resources, our environment, and our pocketbooks.
Each year, getting food to U.S. tables requires:
- 80 percent of our freshwater,
- 10 percent of our available energy, and,
- Half of our land.
Organic waste, mostly food, is the second biggest component of landfills, and landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions. Methane is a major factor in global warming because it is so effective at absorbing the sun’s heat, which warms the atmosphere.
Between 30 and 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten—as much as 20 pounds of food per person per month. That means Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion in food each year.
How Food Waste and Food Safety Are Connected
The major sources of food waste in the United States are the food industry and consumers. Within the food industry, waste occurs at every step—on the farm and with packers, processors, distributors, and retailers. Some of it is the result of economic forces, some of management problems, and some is caused simply by dumping products that are less than perfect in appearance.
But food waste by consumers may often result from fears about food safety caused by misunderstanding of what food product dating actually means, along with uncertainty about storage of perishable foods.
Understanding Food Product Dating
Except for infant formula, dates on food products are not required by any Federal law or regulation, although some states do have requirements for them. Most of the food dates consumers see are on perishable foods, that is, foods likely to quickly spoil, decay, or become unsafe to eat if not kept refrigerated at 40 F° or below or frozen at 0 F° or below. Perishables include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, fresh eggs, and fresh fruit and vegetables. Makers/packers of perishable food use them to help ensure that consumers buy or use their products while they are at what the maker/packer considers their best quality.
- A Sell by date indicates that a product should not be sold after that date if the buyer is to have it at its best quality.
- A Use by or Best by date is the maker’s estimate of how long a product will keep at its best quality.
- They are quality dates only, not safety dates. If stored properly, a food product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality after its Use by or Best by date.
Learn How to Store Perishables and How Long They Will Keep Safely
The FoodKeeper App, developed cooperatively by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute, is a complete guide to how long virtually every food available in the United States will keep in the pantry, in the refrigerator, and in the freezer. The Fresh Fruits section, for example, covers apples (3 weeks in the pantry, 4 – 6 weeks in the fridge, and—only if cooked—8 months in the freezer) to pomegranates (2 – 5 days pantry, 1 – 3 months fridge, and 10 – 12 months freezer). The Meat, Poultry, and Seafood sections are equally complete, and include smoked as well fresh products.
Access the FoodKeeper App or download it as a mobile application:
Warning: If food is obviously spoiled—it’s abnormally soft, discolored, moldy, or has a strong unpleasant smell—discard it, no matter how properly or how short a time it has been stored.
More Ways to Avoid Wasting Food
- Be aware of how much food you throw away.
- Don’t buy more food than can be used before it spoils.
- Plan meals and use shopping lists. Think about what you are buying and when it will be eaten. Check the fridge and pantry to avoid buying what you already have.
- Avoid impulse and bulk purchases, especially produce and dairy that have a limited shelf life. Promotions encouraging purchases of unusual or bulk products often result in consumers buying foods outside their typical needs or family preferences, and portions—potentially large portions—of these foods may end up in the trash.
- When eating out, become a more mindful eater. If you’re not terribly hungry, request smaller portions. Bring your leftovers home and refrigerate or freeze them within two hours, and check the FoodKeeper App to see how long they’ll be safe to eat.