Don’t toss food before it’s time

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We throw away a lot of food — both at the retail level and at home — for a lot of reasons.

On the retail level, food can be discarded because of damage (dented cans), overstocking, unpurchased holiday foods, spillage and blemished foods.

At home, we throw away food for even more reasons, including spillage, lack of knowledge about preparation and portion sizes, the aging of fruits and vegetables, uneaten holiday foods and confusion over “use by” versus “best before” versus “sell by” dates on packaging. (Unfortunately there are no federal regulations regarding the date information except on infant formula. Some states require date information, but it’s not uniform.)

The Department of Agriculture has completed a major study on food loss, and it has come to some startling conclusions about how much food we throw away in one year.

On the consumer level: fresh fruit, 9.5 billion pounds; fresh vegetables, 12.8 billion pounds; poultry, 3.9 billion pounds; eggs, 2.1 billion pounds; fish, 1.5 billion pounds; milk, 10.5 billion pounds.

Per individual, that means: fresh fruit, 40 pounds; fresh vegetables, 59 pounds; poultry, 13 pounds; eggs, 7 pounds; fish, 5 pounds; milk, 34 pounds.

When it comes to the calorie value of food that’s thrown away, two studies differ in their conclusions. One says it’s the equivalent of 789 calories per day. The other puts it at 1,400 calories per day.

It’s likely that much food is thrown away simply because of the confusion over the dates. The Department of Agriculture explains:

• Sell-by date — How long the store can display the product for sale.

• Best if used by (or before) — Use before this day for best flavor or quality.

• Use by date — The last date recommended to use the product while at the peak of quality.

Cans: Canned foods are safe as long as they aren’t exposed temperatures below freezing or above 90 degrees F, and don’t have dents, rust or bulges. (Another opinion: Go by the dates on the can.)

Eggs: Store in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not the door. Use within three to five weeks of purchase. They’re safe to use after the “sell-by” date.

For more information, look for “Food Product Dating” on the Department of Agriculture website at

David Uffington regrets that he cannot personally answer reader questions, but will incorporate them into his column whenever possible. Send email to