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Date marking on food is misleading, but the nose knows

There comes a time in every kitchen when you’re faced with the question, “Does this smell bad?” Without hesitation, I feel my yuck face take shape and a strange combination of dread and curiosity. Yet, I lean in to sniff questionable food anyway.

When the gagging subsides, I realize how grateful I am for a sense of smell. Had my nose not signaled me to stop, once delicious food would’ve given me the ol' one, two punch – a terrible taste in my mouth and a sour belly by bedtime.

As unappealing as it can be, using our senses to assess food safety is a worthy practice, one that should carry more weight in decision-making. What other input might you rely on to decide if food is still good? Logically, you look at the date marking on food packages.

It seems straightforward. If milk or canned corn has the words use by April 10, 2024, written on the packaging then there must be a reason. Therefore, you should heed the warning and toss this food out after said date. But is that true? Not necessarily! It’s why we ought to give more credit to our senses, the nose knows.

For more

Give your teen the skills to safely prepare food. Health Without Barriers is a whole-family health program starting April 30 in Bayfield.

For more information and to preregister, go to https://engagement.colostate.edu/health-without-barriers/.

Despite the impression it gives, the purpose of open-date labeling is to inform the consumer of an estimated time when food will have the best quality – both flavor and nutrition. Except for infant formula, open-dates are not an indication of food safety. While packing dates are required (eggs, beef, etc.), open-date labeling (such as “use by,” “best by” or “sell by”) is not required by federal law.

It’s estimated that 7% of all food waste in the U.S. is a result of the public’s confusion about date marking on food. It’s not just food waste, it’s a waste of your money and the resources it takes to produce food. These are big numbers. Some estimates suggest standardization and clarity on date-marking could save 582,000 tons of food waste and provide $2.41 billion in annual economic value.

Before red flags go up at the public health department, I should clarify retail food establishments are expected to toss food beyond the date marking, end of story. At home, you can be the judge.

Food spoilage can be evident by off odors or a change in taste, texture or color. However, color changes, especially in meat, can be normal and not necessarily a sign of spoilage. Become suspicious if multiple changes are evident. If you’re curious about acceptable color changes in meat and poultry, the USDA has an informative article aptly titled, “The color of meat and poultry.”

Keep in mind that some bacteria, molds and yeasts cause food spoilage. Unsafe food handling practices encourage the replication or transfer of pathogenic microorganisms – the ones responsible for foodborne illnesses. Generally speaking, pathogenic microorganisms cannot be detected by sight, smell or taste.

If you’re unfamiliar with safe food handling practices, search for USDA Keep Food Safe! Food Safety Basics on your favorite browser. Or call your local Extension office.

Nothing lasts forever, well, except Twinkies and a bad haircut. But perhaps we could think more critically about whether food needs to be tossed or be more thoughtful about how much food we buy.

Have faith, you’ll know when food has spoiled. Case in point, I recently had the misfortune of sampling a bite of snapper intended to be our dinner. Of course, it smelled fishy, it’s fish. But it was the strong ammonia taste that knocked my socks off. Let’s just say the frozen pizza was delightful, even a week past its best-by date.

Nicole Clark is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at nclark@lpcgov.org or 382-6461.