Taking One for the Team

CNET Asia blogger Michael Tan raises an interesting question, albeit in a confrontational manner: If you care about the environment and not wasting food, should you buy the container of milk closer to its expiration date?

Robin Shreeves from the Mother Nature Network runs with the question, applying it to various supermarket sections. Her main answer is this:

Yes, I think you should, and I do unless it’s so close to its expiration date that I don’t think my family can finish it.

Buying the foods in front is noble idea, provided you know how long it will take you or yoNow this package might give reason for pause. Photo by dahnielson via creative commonsur family to finish said item. In addition, knowing that the sell-by and expiration dates are usually cautious estimates lowers the stakes.

Shreeves’ rationale is part environmentalism, part economics. Items on or near their sell-by date may be discounted. Unfortunately, not all stores mark down items.

I try to avoid food waste in my personal life. But nobody wants to waste money on goods that I won’t be able to use before they go bad. I’m not going to buy a bruised apple when there’s a fresh one next to it. At the same time, if I see some slightly bruised apples on the discount rack, I’d certainly check them out.

Milk provides a truer test. I have to admit that my gut reaction is to find the freshest bottle possible. Maybe it’s survival instinct. For whatever reason, I often have to remind myself that buying milk 10 days before its use-by date isn’t much different than 12 days. Also, whenever I find myself looking at dates on milk bottles, I think of the “milk maids” scene in Clerks.

While buying the older bottle may feel like putting someone else’s interests ahead of your own, you’re basically getting the same stuff. Especially with all the irradiation of milk these days. What about you? What’s your take on the topic?

My real pet peeve is watching the produce guy cull all those fruits and veggies with one bad spot, knowing that he’s just rendered them garbage. But I’d still get plenty of use out of 90 percent of those items (and would probably buy them at a discount). Unless you want to get that produce from the dumpster (and I don’t), that’s not happening.

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  1. Posted April 21, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Since I really only shop once a week (a bit more often in the warmer months when I can get to the farmer’s markets) I tend to always reach for the milk with the expiration date the farthest off. I HATE the thought of just pouring it down the drain, and there really IS a limit to how many custards I can make the night before the point of no return!

    But… I also check the quick sale section and will often pick up the by-then marked down milk that only has a few days left if I have company coming and know I’ll get through the milk fast enough.

    One thing TO keep in mind though – milk a few days past its prime isn’t something that has to be poured away. I’ve been known to make buttermilk pancakes, sourdough bread, and texas chocolate sheetcake (calls for milk soured with lemon, so why waste the lemon?) from milk less than fresh.

  2. Posted April 21, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an interesting article I read yesterday: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/04/18/earlyshow/health/main4953898.shtml?tag=main_home_storiesBySection

    I wouldn’t necessarily trust CBS news, but I do trust Prevention. It’s about how most food can be used past the “sell by” date. Milk at least a week, eggs 2 or 3 weeks, etc.

    But what I can’t believe is their statistic that the average family of 4 wastes more than 120 pounds of food per month!? Can that be right? Jonathan- does that fit with your research? That’s just appalling and I hope it’s not that bad.

    For myself, I confess to looking for the newest dates on spinach and lettuce.

  3. dee dee
    Posted April 21, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    One of the 2 supermarkets in our area fairly regularly discounts less-than-perfect produce and places it on a cart in the produce section. The items are grouped and wrapped in plastic on a stro tray. It’s pretty random – a cucumber with 3 zucchini; 2 pears, an apple and an orange; maybe 3 red peppers and 1 green one. I always check there first and have often made meals from my finds. The other supermarket doesn’t have this policy, and though it’s a better store in many ways, I always stop at the store with the older produce cart first.

  4. Posted April 21, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Jenna, thanks for the reminder about finding uses for sour milk.

    Thanks for passing along that link, Angela. I’m not sure where CBS got that info, but it seems a bit high to me.

    I put stock in the finding (from Garbage Project founder Bill Rathje) that we don’t eat 1/4 of what we bring home (15 percent in the trash, 10 percent down the disposal). So if the average family of four buys 120 pounds of food per week…then sure.

    Dee Dee, 2 supermarkets in one trip–I used to do the same, but that gets old quick! Good for you if you can manage…

  5. Posted April 21, 2009 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    I buy milk as fresh as I can, because I don’t drink milk. Since it’s up to my boyfriend to make sure the milk is consumed, and since he won’t (knowingly) touch ANYTHING past its expiration date, it makes the most sense to buy it w/ the latest exp. date.

    As for produce: I sometimes feel bad for the bruised produce, so I will often buy it anyway because I know it’ll get tossed anyway. But it depends on how banged up it is. I find the dog still enjoys bruised bits of apple just as much as he likes pristine bits. In other foods, I usually put the bruised or damaged bits in my bag of stock leavings in the freezer (bits of leftover produce used to make stocks and broths).

  6. Posted April 23, 2009 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    I’ve thought about this many times when I’ve gone shopping…since I know expired/damaged food will be thrown away, I sometimes almost feel like I should buy it.

    It’s tough, though, because if I buy food that goes bad soon, I might end up wasting it myself.

    So, I generally just buy damaged/almost expired food if it’s something discounted and if it can be frozen or used right away.

  7. Posted April 30, 2009 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Milk freezes just fine.

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