The Weekly Waste Word: Use by the Apocalypse

At the beginning of most weeks, I give tips on how to avoid wasting food. Today we’ll talk about when ”best before” or “use by” dates can be ignored. 

My legal team advises me here that I should stipulate that I’m not a trained food scientist. True, but there are times when use-by dates are just silly. This article from an Irish newspaper points out the virtual impossibility of salt going bad, yet that doesn’t stop salt packets from having a “best before” date.

The same article singles out olive oil and pasta as two other long-lasting items that could go in the “use by the apolalypse” category. The author’s advice makes a lot of sense to me:

If we’re to reduce this monumental pile of waste, we’re going to have to use common sense rather than relying slavishly on some arbitrary date. Use your nose, smell the food. If it has any off odours, bin it — even if it hasn’t reached its ‘best before’ date.

Remember that the ‘best before’ date has enormous margins of safety built in, just to be sure that even improperly stored foods will still be edible. If the food is properly stored as per the label you have a good 10 percent extra time to consume it.

That’s what makes this tidbit from an article in the University of Rhode Island student paper all the more ridiculous.

[Dining Services' Michael] McCullough said that Dining Services keeps leftover food refrigerated for 72 hours. Rhode Island Health Department regulations say that leftover food can be kept for a week, but McCullough said, “We choose to play it safe and go half that time.”

With health department regulations already on the safe side, you could say URI is playing it double safe. Or you could say they’re wasting good food.

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  1. Posted November 21, 2007 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Pasta, yes. Olive oil, not so sure. Oils do go rancid if they are not stored properly. Olive oil should be bought in small amounts, depending on how fast it’s used up, and kept in a cool, dark place. If you buy several bottles at a time, the ones not being used should be refrigerated. Rancid oil is actually harmful to our cells. And yes, I agree about using our noses; however some people (like my husband) can’t tell when oil has gone rancid or milk has gone sour. Maybe “Best Before” dates are good for people like him!

  2. Jonathan
    Posted November 21, 2007 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Good point. I was assuming people would keep oils in a dark cupboard, but you’re right to raise the idea that storage matters.

    True, “Best Before” dates aren’t all bad. My beef with them is that they’re extremely cautious in order to prevent lawsuits. If your nose can tell good from bad (Your hubby really can’t tell when milk is sour?), go with that.

  3. Posted July 23, 2008 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    “Best before” means superstores in UK lingo. I do not shop there for most food. Local butchers, fishmongers, bakers, fruiterers etc are a better choice. Ready meals are a thing of the past. Food which is off can be composted/Bokashi binned. Cooking oils can be used for fuel.
    Food waste for me is minimal with scraps for local birds. Plastic is the biggest remaining source of waste.


  4. Jonathan
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    By UK lingo, do you mean Cockney rhyming slang? Because that’s fun stuff…

    Do you regularly use the Bokashi?

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