Time to toss food a matter of understanding the label

Determining which leftovers are safe to use and which need to go can be a challenge without some proper guidelines. Judy Buchenot~For Sun-Times Media
Determining which leftovers are safe to use and which need to go can be a challenge without some proper guidelines. Judy Buchenot~For Sun-Times Media
Judy Buchenot
For Sun-Times Media
Aug. 29 8:48 a.m.
Kantha’s Culinary Cue

When they occur, most food poisonings can be treated simply by drinking lots of water to compensate for the vomiting and diarrhea; avoiding caffeinated beverages or dairy products to prevent additional irritation; taking a pro-biotic to help reinstate the GI tract flora and avoiding anti-diarrheal medications which only retain the contaminants in your system and delay recovery.

The Chart

The NSF International, a global public health and safety organization, has put together this chart to help consumers gauge how long to keep refrigerated foods before they will spoil or become unsafe to eat. Since frozen food can remain safe to eat indefinitely, the times in freezer column refer to the amount a time an item can be kept frozen without suffering a reduced quality of product. Getting into the practice of dating items before refrigerating them is helpful in determining when a food needs to be thrown away.

Bacon
Refrigerator: 7 days
Freezer: 1 month

Beverages (Juices in cartons, fruit drinks, punch)
Refrigerator: 3 weeks unopened, 7 to 10 days opened
Freezer: 8 - 12 months

Cheese - hard (e.g. Swiss)
Refrigerator: 3-4 weeks
Freezer: 6 months

Cheese - soft (e.g. brie)
Refrigerator: 1 week
Freezer: 6 months

Chops
Refrigerator: 3-5 days
Freezer: 4-6 months

Cottage cheese
Refrigerator: 1 week
Freezer: Doesn’t freeze well

Fish - lean (cod, etc.)
Refrigerator: 1-2 days
Freezer: 6 months

Fish - fatty (salmon, etc.)
Refrigerator: 1-2 days
Freezer: 2-3 months

Dough - tube cans of rolls, biscuits, pizza dough
Refrigerator: Use-by date
Freezer: Don’t freeze

Dough - cookie
Refrigerator: Use-by date
Freezer: 2 months

Eggs – fresh in shell
Refrigerator: 3-5 weeks
Freezer: Don’t freeze

Eggs – hard cooked
Refrigerator: 1 week
Freezer: Don’t freeze well

Egg substitutes - opened
Refrigerator: 3 days
Freezer: Don’t freeze well

Egg substitutes - unopened
Refrigerator: 3 days
Freezer: 1 year

Ground hamburger, turkey, pork mixtures; stew meat
Refrigerator: 1-2 days
Freezer: 3-4 months

Ham – fully cooked, whole
Refrigerator: 7 days
Freezer: 1-2 months

Ham - fully cooked, slices
Refrigerator: 3-4 days
Freezer: 1-2 months

Hot dogs - opened
Refrigerator: 1 week
Freezer: 1-2 months

Hot dogs - unopened
Refrigerator: 2 weeks
Freezer: 1-2 months

Leftovers – all kinds
Refrigerator: 3 to 4 days
Freezer: 2 – 3 months

Luncheon meats - opened
Refrigerator: 3 to 5 days
Freezer:1 to 2 months

Luncheon meats - unopened
Refrigerator: 2 weeks
Freezer:1 to 2 months

Margarine
Refrigerator: 4 - 5 months
Freezer: 12 months

Mayonnaise - commercial/refrigerate after opening
Refrigerator: 2 months
Freezer: Doesn’t freeze well

Milk
Refrigerator: 7 days
Freezer: 3 months

Poultry - fresh, chicken or turkey
Refrigerator: 1 to 2 days
Freezer: 6 months

Sausage, raw
Refrigerator: 1 to 2 days
Freezer: 1 to 2 days 1 to 2 months

Smoked breakfast sausage
Refrigerator: 7 days
Freezer: 1 to 2 months

Steaks, roasts
Refrigerator: 3 to 5 days
Freezer: 6 - 12 months

Yogurt
Refrigerator: 7 - 14 days
Freezer: 1 - 2 months

Should it stay or should it go? That is the question pondered by many as they peer into the refrigerator, freezer and pantry in home kitchens.

There are several ways to approach this food mystery ranging from sniffing to looking for expiration dates to recalling grandma’s advice to “when in doubt, throw it out.” Surely there is a better way to avoid making a recipe for disaster.

The reality is that many items accused of being spoiled and sentenced to decompose in a garbage bag may be falsely convicted. The United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service estimates that in 2010, about 133 billion pounds of food was not eaten as a result of being wasted in the United States.

This means that about one-third of the 430 billions pounds of edible food available at retail and consumer levels was not eaten. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that about one-third of all the food produced for human consumption world wide is lost or wasted.

One common reason for waste is confusion surrounding date labels. All dates stamped on packaging do not mean the same thing. Many items can be safely used beyond the date on the package. NSF International, a global public health and safety organization explains there are three basic types of dates stamped on foods. The easiest to understand are expiration or “use by” dates. Any food kept past the date stamped with these two phrases need to be thrown away.

“Sell by” dates are a different story. These dates are primarily a reference for retailers to know when a food should be pulled from the shelves. Check these dates before purchasing and do not purchase if this date has passed. However, food does not necessarily have to be used by this date. It just has the best quality if used by this date.

The third category is most confusing because it has nothing to do with food safety. “Best used by dates” refer to quality and freshness. This date is the last date for the food to be at its peak.

If the food has not been opened and has been handled correctly, it will be safe to eat even after the “best by” date has passed. About 36 percent of American consumers throw out food that is past the “sell by” or “best used by” dates even though it is usually safe to eat according to NSF International.

However, all of this does not mean that grandma didn’t know what she was talking about. Once a product is opened and used, care must be taken to store it properly and use it within a safe period of time.

Kantha Shelke is a food chemist who runs Corvus Blue, a Chicago independent food science firm, states “When in doubt, it is best to throw it out … particularly considering where many of our foods hail from and how far they travel to reach us. Typically, foods must look and smell appealing and if these are off, then it is a good possibility that they are spoiled.”

She says the food which require the most care include raw eggs, deli meats, sprouts, mixed salad greens, fresh or cooked shrimp, oysters and other shellfish, cheese, raw ground meats, raw chicken, soft cheese, yogurt, and fresh berries.

Pay attention to expiration dates on these products and throw them out once the date has arrived. If the item is about to expire and can’t be used, it can be frozen. “The deterioration of foods can be stalled by freezing them,” notes Shelke who adds, “but it is important to not leave them there forever.” The longer the item is frozen, the more the food quality suffers.

Shelke offers a few suggestions on how to reduce food spoilage. She says if there are leftovers from dinner, immediately pack them into containers to use for a “leftover lunch.” Packaging leftovers right away makes it easier to remember to use them the next day.

If there is a large amount of leftover food, portion it into single servings, label and place in the freezer for family members to use for a quick meal on days when time is short.

Shelke says to take action to reduce leftovers if your refrigerator is two-thirds or more full. A simple way to use up leftovers it to organize a buffet meal, a sort of leftover smörgåsbord. Another method is to transform the leftovers into other dishes.

“Leftover meats and poultry make substantial stir fries, casseroles, and soups with the addition of whole grains and vegetables,” suggests Shelke. “You can simply take two leftover ingredients, some broth, and possibly another ingredient or two and make a good soup out of almost anything.”

If you are not ready to make the soup, package up the leftovers and freeze to use in a future soup or casserole. The goal for refrigerated leftovers should be “three days and out,” according to Shelke.

When shopping, think about the amount of fresh food you are buying. Don’t buy more than your family can eat or be ready to freeze part of the fresh food, advises Shelke. Come up with creative ways to use items that have become overripe rather than tossing them out. Ripe bananas are great for banana bread and smoothies.

But it there is no time to make these items, pop the banana into the freezer to use later. Families who love smoothies often keep a bag in the freezer for the last few strawberries or grapes and other leftover fruits. These frozen fruits can go right into the blender for a delicious beverage.

An ideal goal is to reduce waste, but stay safe. Pay attention to expiration dates and label leftovers to know when they should go. The attached chart from NSF International can help with deciding just how long foods can hang around in the refrigerator or freezer.

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Kantha’s Culinary Cue

When they occur, most food poisonings can be treated simply by drinking lots of water to compensate for the vomiting and diarrhea; avoiding caffeinated beverages or dairy products to prevent additional irritation; taking a pro-biotic to help reinstate the GI tract flora and avoiding anti-diarrheal medications which only retain the contaminants in your system and delay recovery.

The Chart

The NSF International, a global public health and safety organization, has put together this chart to help consumers gauge how long to keep refrigerated foods before they will spoil or become unsafe to eat. Since frozen food can remain safe to eat indefinitely, the times in freezer column refer to the amount a time an item can be kept frozen without suffering a reduced quality of product. Getting into the practice of dating items before refrigerating them is helpful in determining when a food needs to be thrown away.

Bacon
Refrigerator: 7 days
Freezer: 1 month

Beverages (Juices in cartons, fruit drinks, punch)
Refrigerator: 3 weeks unopened, 7 to 10 days opened
Freezer: 8 - 12 months

Cheese - hard (e.g. Swiss)
Refrigerator: 3-4 weeks
Freezer: 6 months

Cheese - soft (e.g. brie)
Refrigerator: 1 week
Freezer: 6 months

Chops
Refrigerator: 3-5 days
Freezer: 4-6 months

Cottage cheese
Refrigerator: 1 week
Freezer: Doesn’t freeze well

Fish - lean (cod, etc.)
Refrigerator: 1-2 days
Freezer: 6 months

Fish - fatty (salmon, etc.)
Refrigerator: 1-2 days
Freezer: 2-3 months

Dough - tube cans of rolls, biscuits, pizza dough
Refrigerator: Use-by date
Freezer: Don’t freeze

Dough - cookie
Refrigerator: Use-by date
Freezer: 2 months

Eggs – fresh in shell
Refrigerator: 3-5 weeks
Freezer: Don’t freeze

Eggs – hard cooked
Refrigerator: 1 week
Freezer: Don’t freeze well

Egg substitutes - opened
Refrigerator: 3 days
Freezer: Don’t freeze well

Egg substitutes - unopened
Refrigerator: 3 days
Freezer: 1 year

Ground hamburger, turkey, pork mixtures; stew meat
Refrigerator: 1-2 days
Freezer: 3-4 months

Ham – fully cooked, whole
Refrigerator: 7 days
Freezer: 1-2 months

Ham - fully cooked, slices
Refrigerator: 3-4 days
Freezer: 1-2 months

Hot dogs - opened
Refrigerator: 1 week
Freezer: 1-2 months

Hot dogs - unopened
Refrigerator: 2 weeks
Freezer: 1-2 months

Leftovers – all kinds
Refrigerator: 3 to 4 days
Freezer: 2 – 3 months

Luncheon meats - opened
Refrigerator: 3 to 5 days
Freezer:1 to 2 months

Luncheon meats - unopened
Refrigerator: 2 weeks
Freezer:1 to 2 months

Margarine
Refrigerator: 4 - 5 months
Freezer: 12 months

Mayonnaise - commercial/refrigerate after opening
Refrigerator: 2 months
Freezer: Doesn’t freeze well

Milk
Refrigerator: 7 days
Freezer: 3 months

Poultry - fresh, chicken or turkey
Refrigerator: 1 to 2 days
Freezer: 6 months

Sausage, raw
Refrigerator: 1 to 2 days
Freezer: 1 to 2 days 1 to 2 months

Smoked breakfast sausage
Refrigerator: 7 days
Freezer: 1 to 2 months

Steaks, roasts
Refrigerator: 3 to 5 days
Freezer: 6 - 12 months

Yogurt
Refrigerator: 7 - 14 days
Freezer: 1 - 2 months

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