How to Get More Out of Your Kitchen Stash and Minimize Your Trash
By Molly M. Ginty
Chances are, you and your family don't always agree on whether to toss a carton of eggs or a box of crackers based on the date stamped on the packaging.
Last year, a poll from the Food Policy Action Network found that 60 percent of people have debated the meaning of food labels within their households. But confusing label terms—"Sell by," "Best before," "Expires on," "Enjoy by"—don't just cause arguments; they also cause food waste.
A 2013 industry-conducted survey from Eastern Research Group, cited in a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School, revealed that more than 90 percent of consumers have prematurely thrown away food because they misinterpret these labels as indicators of food safety.
In fact, manufacturers typically use these labels to indicate when a food is at its peak quality, even though it may be safe to eat long beyond the date on its package. Federal regulations do not require product dating for anything except infant formula. And while some states do require certain date labels on certain types of food, their requirements differ, leading to separate and sometimes conflicting state-based labeling systems.
This year, consumers will start to see a simplified date labeling system aimed at cutting the confusion. It's a small but important step in combating our massive food waste habit, which causes an estimated 40 percent of food to go uneaten in America. The new approach to labeling (described below), which many food-processing companies are adopting on a voluntary basis, will help prevent retailers from pruning their shelves at the current rate: According to one industry expert, the average grocery store discards $2,300 worth of "out of date" goods each day. It'll save consumers cash, too: The typical American family of four spends $1,800 each year on food they don't eat.
Until the simplified labels catch on, trust your gut (and your nose) when deciding what to toss and what to keep. These food-saving and food-storage tips will help.
Treat Food Date Labels More as Suggestions than Commands.
Under our current system, it's hard to know what the date stamped on a food container is intended to mean. In some cases, the dates aren't even meant to communicate with consumers. "Sell by" dates, for instance, are intended for grocers to use in managing their inventory. True, some foods have short shelf lives, but many others have surprising staying power.
"Condiments stored properly in the pantry or fridge can be good for years," said Ted Labuza, PhD, a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. "Canned foods—though labeled safe for about three years—can potentially last for decades. Let your nose—and maybe a few nibbles—serve as your best guides," Labuza said. You'll want to get rid of anything sticky, smelly or slimy.
Use Your Senses and Then Get Creative.
Food is a living thing, and from the moment of harvest, it begins to decompose. But just because your bread is drying up or your bananas are going brown, it doesn't mean they're spoiled. (Mold, of course, is a different story.)
While some signs of food damage are red flags—such as an open scratch on a pear where bacteria could potentially grow—many flaws are harmless. Others just require a little bit of kitchen savvy to get past. Whip brown bananas into smoothies, for example, or turn stale bread into toast. Soak tired veggies in ice water. Sauté your wilting greens. Cook too-soft tomatoes into soup. There are plenty of ways to salvage foods slightly past their prime. And if all really is lost? Compost.
Maximize Your Food's Life Span with These Six Storage Tips.
1. Place produce in sealed packaging and refrigerate it. (There are some exceptions, like bananas, potatoes and onions, for example, which are best kept just below room temperature).
2. Keep your refrigerator at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Reserve the coldest part of your fridge (usually the bottom) for fish, poultry, prepared foods and other items that are highly perishable. Place items like drinks, snacks and condiments on an upper shelf or in a door compartment.
4. If cans are dented, bulging or misshapen, throw them out (bacteria inside can cause their contents to swell).
5. Store nonperishable pantry items in a cool, dry place—i.e., not in a cabinet above your stove or in direct sunlight.
6. Don't leave perishable foods out (placing milk on a countertop for one to two hours can rob it of a full three hours of refrigerator shelf life).
Look Out for New Labels.
In 2017, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association developed new voluntary guidelines for food date labeling for their members. The new system greatly simplifies the wording used on food date labels, trimming them down to these two terms:
- "Best if used by" describes product quality. The product may not taste or perform as expected after the date, but it is safe to use or consume.
- "Use by" applies to the much smaller number of products that are highly perishable or for which a food safety concern may arise over time. Such products should be consumed by the date shown on the package. After that, they should be discarded.
"While the 'use by' label ensures a perishable product is safe, the 'best if used by' label ensures a nonperishable one is of good quality," said Meghan Stasz, the senior director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Walmart, the largest U.S. retailer, helped catalyze the shift to simplified labels and is slashing the number of labels on its Great Value food products from a total of 47 down to just one, which will be the "best if used by" date.
"Though major industry players are following suit and quickly adopting the new labels, we still hope to codify this into federal law," said JoAnne Berkenkamp, a senior advocate at NRDC. "Federal legislation would avoid the confusing patchwork of state standards that now exists and would help educate consumers about what the labels do and don't mean."
During the phase-in period for the voluntary standards, shoppers may still encounter the old panoply of labels. But Stasz said industry leaders "expect to see broad adoption of these standards by the end of 2018," regardless of whether Congress takes action.
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance health writer and yoga instructor in New York City, She has written for Ms., Utne Reader, Marie Claire, Planned Parenthood, PBS.org and Women's eNews. An avid runner and sometime photographer, she lives in Harlem.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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