Hands holding an apple-shaped earth.

To toss or not? Knowing when ‘expired’ really means expired

Devin Bowes and Ralph Halden, researchers in the Biodesign Institute Center for Environmental Health Engineering, are interviewed in a recent Discover Magazine article where they discuss how to avoid food waste.

According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, Americans toss out approximately 25% of the food we buy. Carelessness, confusion over label dates and food spoilage are the three main reasons food is wasted. The problem has become so significant that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced the ambitious goal of reducing food waste by 50% by the year 2030. 

Devin Bowes, a nutritional epidemiologist at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, is dedicated to helping the public understand ways they can improve their health through food choices.  Bowes studies what we put in our bodies and how dietary behaviors can lead to chronic disease. She is passionate about food policy and sustainability.

Recently, Bowes and Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering, were featured in Discover Magazine’s Feb. 7, 2020 article, Is ‘Expired’ Milk Safe to Drink? Here’s How to Know When to Throw Away Food

In the article, Bowes explains that food poisoning is not as prevalent as many people may think. “More often people become sick from not storing their food properly or unsanitary food preparation,” she said.  

According to Halden, “humans have an innate ability to sense issues with food, ranging from appearance to smell to tactile clues.” He explains that we can often rely on our sense of sight, touch, and in particular, smell. "While this is not perfect, it enables us to quickly reject food that potentially is compromised," he said.

One important issue is that there are no established standards around how food producers label expiration dates. The table below provides a guide*:

ItemHow long to you can keep after printed sell date
pasteurized eggsup to five weeks
pasteurized milkup to seven days or until it sours
cheeseup to six weeks after sell date, cut off moldy sections with a 1 inch margin
breadup to seven days past its sell date (avoid eating if moldy and toss it)
poultry & ground meatuse within one to two days of sell date or freeze by that date
cut meatsuse within 3-5 days of sell date or freeze

*Based on information provided in Discover, Feb. 7, 2020

Researchers also advise avoiding over-shopping, buying only the items that you will use immediately. If you purchase more than you need, be sure to freeze the unused items to be used at a later date. This practice saves money and also saves our landfills from being overburdened by unnecessary waste.

Bowes is part of a team of researchers who are working to protect human health and critical ecosystems by detecting, minimizing and ultimately eliminating harmful chemical and biological agents through early detection and engineering interventions. The center was established in 2012 and has since gained international recognition for their expertise in studying healthy access to food, water and sustainability while avoiding exposure to toxins and environmental pollutants.

The Discover article advises calling the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854 if you have a question. According to Discover, the hotline receives 50,000 food safety questions a year.

Adapted from Discover Magazine by Christine Lewis