Baby Boomers and Seniors:  Stop Throwing Your Food Away

Two-Part Blog on Reducing Food Waste and Cutting Your Costs

And What Exactly is “Shrinkflation”

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Chapter 1 of 2.  The History and Research.

Right this minute there is so much in the news that’s it’s almost overwhelming.  Not to be disparaging about all that’s going on here and around the globe, but I wanted to use this blog to take a detour from all the nastiness in the news and give some uplifting information on how all of us seniors can better manage our food costs.  

Here is the perplexing issue of the day.  How many times do you go through your refrigerator or pantry and check the labels on your food.  As you do this, and I do it frequently, I find the labels showing expiration dates of a month, a week, or even a few days.  And what do I do, or should I say what did I do, I simply threw the food away trusting the “date on” as being the time to discard.  After all, the “date on” must be the barometer for the food not being healthy to consume if it’s expired.

My BoomerGuy during his corporate years, travelled extensively all over the world.  And yep, he got food poisoning but it was always from restaurants.  Of course, he didn’t expect it because he was eating in upper scale establishments where one would think the food to be good, not bad.  Most likely the food wasn’t bad, it was the method of food preparation that was the culprit.  

Here at home, ground zero if you will, nothing like that even comes close.  Our food is carefully prepared, and leftovers have become a key element of our daily diet.  We max out on hygiene cleaning the surfaces thoroughly on all cutting boards and counters where food might come in contact.  And, yes, we did all this before the pandemic.

Yet, I continue to struggle what to do with expired food, or at least what the label says is expired food.

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“On some intellectual level, throwing food away is just not the right thing to do.  The statistics are damning.  40 percent of food produced in America heads to the landfill or is otherwise wasted.  Believe me, that adds up.  Every year, the average American family throws out somewhere between $1365 and $2275, according to a landmark 2013 study co-authored by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council.  It also becomes a huge economic loss for food growers and retailers, who often have to ditch weirdly shaped produce or overstocked food that didn’t sell.”

“To further exacerbate the matter, the study found that 25 percent of the fresh water in the United States goes toward producing food that goes uneaten, and 21 percent of input to our landfills is comprised of food.  Right now, landfills are piled high with wasted food, most of which was perfectly fine to eat.”  All of this leads to a monumental environmental disaster.

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There is no question America has a food waste problem and unfortunately it has for a number of years.  So how does this problem translate into what we as citizens of this fine land do to individually improve our treatment of food waste.  Although I’m much better at ‘not wasting’ food, when I see expiration dates on food products I still have a tendency to throw them out.    If you’ve been throwing out food based on the freshness label, you’re not alone.  It is seemingly a widespread practice.  When the date says it’s done, it’s done, right?

Well, hold on, not so fast, because that is not exactly true.  “Researchers have found that expiration dates—which rarely correspond to food actually expiring or spoiling—are mostly well-intentioned but haphazard and confusing.  Put another way, they’re not expiration dates at all.  And the broader public’s misunderstanding about them is a major contributor in every single one of the factors named above:  wasted food, wasted revenue, wasted household income, food insecurity and wasted environmental resources.”

That puts us smack in the middle of thinking  

we know all there is about food labeling…

“There are two vital facts to know about date labels on foods in the U.S.  they’re not standardized, and they have almost nothing to do with food safety.” 

Here is a bit on the history of food labeling.

“Date labels first started appearing in the decades following World War II, as American consumers increasingly moved away from shopping at small grocery stores and farms toward supermarkets, with their rows of packaged and curated options.  At first manufacturers printed a date code on cans and packages for the benefit of the grocer, so they would have a guideline for when to rotate their stock.  AT THAT TIME, THE LABELING WAS NOT DESIGNED FOR CONSUMERS.  But since shoppers wanted to buy the freshest food on the shelf, savvy folks started publishing booklets that gave a guide for deciphering the codes.”

“Eventually, producers seeing that shoppers actually wanted to know what those secret dates were—started including more clearly readable dates on the packages with day, month and year.  They saw it as a marketing boon.  It was a way to attract consumers with the premise their food was fresh and flavorful.  Consumers loved it, and the so-called ‘open date’ labels became commonplace.  But there was little consistency about them.”

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And while the federal government made some attempts beginning in the 1970s to enact legislation that would standardize what those labels meant across the country, they failed. (The exception is infant formula, for which there are strict federal guidelines.) Instead, the burden fell on state and sometimes local legislatures, which passed laws that varied wildly, often relying on voluntary industry standards. One state might never require labels; another may mandate that the freshness label on milk have a date of 21 days after bottling; a third may set the same date at 14 days. State-to-state discrepancies can be costly for manufacturers, who had to come up with ways to produce multiple labels for multiple regions. But it’s also baffling to consumers.

The labels are inconsistent, too. What the label actually indicates varies from producer to producer. So you might have a “best by” label on one product, a “sell by” label on another, and a “best if used before” label on a third. Those have different meanings, but the average consumer may not immediately realize that, or even notice there’s a difference.  We never did!

Furthermore, those dates might not even be consistent across brands of the same food product — peanut butter or strawberry jam. That’s partly because they’re not really meant to indicate when a food is safest. Most packaged foods are perfectly fine for weeks or months past the date. Canned and frozen goods last for years. That package of chips you forgot about that’s a month out of date isn’t going to kill you — they just might be a tiny bit less crunchy than you’d like.  The huge exception is foods like deli meats and deli salads, which won’t be reheated before they’re consumed and can pick up listeria in the production process — but that’s the exception, not the rule.

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You can check for the freshness of eggs by trying to float them in a glass of water (if it sinks, it’s good). Properly pasteurized milk, which is free of pathogens, should be fine if it tastes and smells fine. But many of us, with the best of intentions, just look at what the label says and throw out what’s old.

So, what is all this nonsense.  Is this a scam?

“When it was first realized that date labeling wasn’t linked directly to scientifically backed safety standards but to a more subjective, voluntary, and nebulous standard of ‘freshness,’ the consensus was … well, is it kind of a scam. After all, customers don’t benefit from throwing out foods; grocers lose money; farmers miss out on possible sources of revenue. The only people who could benefit are the producers, and one could imagine an unscrupulous manufacturer shortening the date on their food so that people will sigh, throw out a half-eaten package that has ‘expired,’ and go buy some more sooner than otherwise.”

“Manufacturers would say ‘there is a legitimate reason on their part, which is they want you to eat things when they taste the absolute best.’ The methods by which they determine that date can vary; a big manufacturer might run a focus group with consumers to determine the date, while a small producer may just hazard a guesstimate. But importantly, the freshness date almost never corresponds to the food’s safety — to whether or not it could make you sick.  The dates are, in part, a way of ‘protecting the brand.’ Their biggest incentive is to make sure you eat the food when it tastes the way they think it should.”

Here is another twist.  That doesn’t mean the way we buy and eat food has no part in the blame. The fact that so many of us read a “best by” label as actually saying “bad after” is partly a public education problem, and it’s one that manufacturers haven’t worked too hard to combat. “It’s in the general interest of anybody trying to sell anything to continue to perpetuate the illusion that our foods are going bad all the time.” But we’ve absorbed over time the idea that those natural processes are bad and will make us sick. Instead, we rely on companies to tell us what food is good for us and when to get rid of it.  

Personally, I don’t buy into much of it.  I let my eyes and nose do the majority of testing.  The good old sniff test is still the best on many products.

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I find much of what exists in the market as spurious.  The one label to which I pay the most attention is entitled “Sell By.”  It means nothing other than a timeframe for the grocer to move the product off the shelves and into our hands.  What in the world do they do with that food if you and I don’t buy it by that date?  

Beyond that, there is nothing conclusive about a definitive “Eat By” date.  Those dates don’t exist and hopefully will never find their way into mainstream labeling.  So with that…

I’m not about to leave you without some helpful advice.  You want to minimize your risks of “expired” food.  You want to protect your family at all costs.  You want to save money?   Here are five simple tips for adding peace of mind and money back into your wallet, or better yet, not taking it out in the first place.

  • Don’t buy more than you need, at any given time, try buying half as much food.  Take your list and cut it in half.  Get out of the mindset that it’s OK to throw out excess food.
  • Utilize your freezer space.  If you have something in the refrigerator that’s been there for several days, it’s perfectly fine to bag it or put it in a container and slip it into the freezer to be used later.  My freezer is packed with left overs and other foods that would normally have spoiled had I not transferred them.   I also label the bags and containers and date them, just to be sure.
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  • There is not a great deal of distinction between new food and old food; they’re just ingredients you use differently.  So don’t throw out the old just because the ‘date-on’ says to, use it in your next meal.
  • Try not to buy in on the “in-vogue” foods you hear about on social media.  What happens, you end up buying the latest trend, and those new ingredients tend to get used first and what we have on-hand just sits there, spoils and eventually gets thrown out.  What a waste!
  • There are all kinds of hacks for food preservation and use, and one of them has to do with berries, of all kinds.  Simply mix a solution of 10 parts cold water and one-part white vinegar and submerse your strawberries or other in this mixture.  You can rinse or not, the berries don’t absorb the vinegary flavor, but what does happen is that your berries will last 10 days to two weeks in the refrigerator, at least a week longer than without the treatment.  No more waste, and you save a ton of money because fruit is becoming so increasingly expensive.
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I don’t care who you are or what budget you are on.  Or even if you are on one.  Take measure and think about our environment and think about the waste and try doing these little measures to help reduce the environmental impact and the costs of your ongoing food purchases.  It’s common sense and good common sense.  

Stay tuned for the second chapter, where we will talk about “shrinkflation.” There is so much information on this subject, I did not want to overload you in one sitting.  Besides, if you find this first chapter appealing and intriguing, then you will most certainly tell all your friends, and everyone will check in again next week for the second installment.  

One last thing to impart before I sign off for this week.  Please send prayers and good thoughts to all our brave soldiers serving in Afghanistan.  The chaos is beyond comprehension, yet they are the strength of American character defending our every interest. 

We hope you’re staying well.  Eating as healthy as possible.  Getting out to exercise.  And, making the best of everyday.  Please stay informed and relevant Boomers.  Your special BoomerGal, Connie.

Thank you to the exceptional editorial contribution 

by VOX News, Alissa Wilkinson

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