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Sierra Daily

Sep 19, 2013

Passing The Sniff Test

Smelling bad milkLast week, this blog noted the massive carbon footprint –- 3.3 billion tons per year -- of global food waste. (When compared to the greenhouse offal of entire countries, that puts “food waste” just behind China and the United States.) This week, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a useful “issue brief” that spells out ways public agencies and individuals can begin to trim kitchen waste. Among the easiest: Ignore those “sell-by” dates you find on food products. 

And risk spending the night doubled over the porcelain throne? Well, no. But “sell by” and “best by” date stamps aren’t indicators of safety, just a manufacturer’s best guess of peak freshness. Confusion over labeling, according to the Food Marketing Institute, leads nine out of ten Americans to throw away perfectly good food. In The Dating Game: How Confusing Labels Land Billions of Pounds of Food in the Trash, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic suggest that a revised food-labeling system (which, except for infant formula, is managed state-by-state) could clear up some confusion. One of their potentially contentious ideas is to make invisible to consumers “sell by” dates, which are designed to help a store manage inventory and does not tell consumers how long a product will be good after it’s purchased. The groups also suggest clarifying labeling language: “Best by” could be replaced by “Peak freshness guaranteed by,” for example.

In the end, we should rely more on our skills honed as daily eaters. “Having a date on a package of food is reassuring,” Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (And What We Can Do About It), told the Washington Post. “But you should always trust your senses before that arbitrary date on the package. Look, smell, and if it comes to it, taste it before you throw it away.”

Image by iStock/3bugsmom.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

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