I wasn’t sure about the peach. Purplish, squishy and days past its prime, the peach, I have to say, did not taste good.
But it also didn’t make me sick. Nor did anything else I ate during my weeklong attempt to consume only foods that had “expired” or were destined for the trash ― not the past-date chicken, not the wilted collard greens, not the aging bacon.
Most of what I ate that week was not terrible, with the exception of the peach, but the bulk of it was old or had passed the “sell by,” “use by” or “best before” date on the label. Sure, I tasted some unpleasant tastes once or twice and possibly lost some friends who were grossed out by the whole thing, but some of that food was downright delicious.
Overall, the experiment basically confirmed what food waste experts had been telling me for weeks: As long as you avoid obvious hazards like rancid meat, eating food that’s past date probably won’t hurt you. That’s because date labels ― which are set by food manufacturers, not government regulators ― tell shoppers when food is going to lose its freshness, not when it’s going to become unsafe to eat, according to Marianne Gravely, technical information specialist at the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
“There is a lot of variety in food labeling, but very few products have a date that indicates the product is unsafe,” Gravely told The Huffington Post. That said, Gravely noted that some past-date foods, especially meats, may carry a low risk of illness, and that you should not consume refrigerated meat that smells bad or has a slimy feel.
“If you have any doubts about the product, don’t take a chance—just discard it,” Gravely said.
Not everyone realizes that date labels are usually quality markers, however, and Americans throw out a ton of past-date food for fear that it will make them ill. Making date labels on food easier to understand could help save nearly 400,000 tons of food from being sent to landfills each year, according to the nonprofit ReFED. A bill currently before Congress aims to do just that by replacing the present date labeling system with labels that clearly indicate when food will lose its freshness or become unsafe to eat.
For my experiment, quickly acquiring past-date food proved to be kind of tough.
I found a bunch of past-date stuff already in my fridge, but not enough for a whole week. I actually had to dig some food out of the trash and scour my local grocery store for items that had passed their date or were pretty close. One of my friends works at an urban farm in New York, so I was also able to get some leftover produce from their weekly farmer’s market.
My diet for the week didn’t stray too far from the usual fare. I ate lots of old eggs and drank plenty of soy milk from a big carton, which was a month past its “use by” date when I found it in the store. It wouldn’t have won an award for flavor, but it paired pretty well with old tortillas.
I also found a package of past-date bacon and fried up a couple strips with nearly every meal. One night, I grilled chicken breasts that the label said I should have already used. I ate the leftovers the next day. They were delicious.
I scavenged for edibles in a municipal garbage can near my office and even found a whole bunch of perfectly good honeydew. But mostly I ate leftovers from the farmer’s market which would have been thrown out had my friend not given them to me. Turns out, if you sauté wilted collards, beet greens and leeks with a little oil and salt, they’ll taste pretty good, no matter how droopy they look.
Would I do it again, you ask? Should you try it yourself, you wonder? Maybe.
Really, it wasn’t that bad. None of the foods I ate tasted that disgusting. Well, the eggs definitely weren’t at peak freshness, but they weren’t inedible, despite having a two-week-old date stamped on the carton. Maybe the yolks tasted a little chalky, but that might be because I cooked them for longer than usual, just to be safe. Paired with a few strips of bacon and some stale ciabatta bread, they actually made for a pretty tasty breakfast.
But here’s the thing: eating past-date food is inconvenient.
Supermarkets are really good at tossing food as soon it passes the “sell by” date, so accumulating a stockpile of expired goods can take time. Plus, some of my favorite foods have “use by” dates that are several years in the future, meaning I couldn’t eat them for my experiment. (Sorry, couscous!)
Sticking to this diet became harder over time. I got tired of my chicken, bacon and greens routine, and the temptation to share a fresh meal with friends proved at times too strong. On a trip to the beach one day, I broke down and ate some fresh fish ― because, come on, I was at the beach.
My recommendation: Don’t go out of your way to eat past-date food. In fact, try not to stock up on so much food that it goes bad before you can eat it. But if you do pull something out of the fridge and notice it’s past the “sell by,” “use by” or “best before” date, don’t worry too much about it.
If it smells alright and doesn’t taste like poison, it’s probably fine. Otherwise, toss it in the compost bin.
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