Editor’s Note: The Food Safety “Odd” Couple: When Approaches to Food Safety Collide

There are distinct schools of thought when it comes to food safety. For example, there are some people who love leftovers, and others who get squeamish at the idea. There are some who discard food as soon as it hits the “Sell By” date on the package, while others are okay taking a “gamble,” or waiting for more obvious signs of spoilage. It is likely our food safety philosophies have been shaped by our experiences. Anyone who has had a bad bout of foodborne illness thinks twice whenever they consume the food that led to that memorable 24-48 hours of misery – if they eat it again at all. They are also not likely to throw caution to the wind if there is a chance they could end up making the same mistake again, and therefore may have a more conservative approach to food safety.

My husband and I have vastly different food safety philosophies. I am the leftover-enjoying, “gambling” one who will (within reason) often eat food until it no longer looks or smells fresh, while he will rarely touch bread or milk that has “expired” – meaning, the “Sell By” date has passed. This difference in outlooks has led to many an interesting discussion (and debate) around the kitchen counter. My feeling is, “Why let perfectly good food go to waste?” while his is “Why risk getting sick if you don’t have to?” It is difficult to argue with either point, and I certainly can see where he is coming from.  

​While my husband and I may be the food safety “odd” couple, we definitely agree that it is never a good idea to risk harming your health. One recent evening, we were making dinner and the ground beef we had thawed just didn’t look right. While it pained me to throw food away, he and I both knew it was not worth it to risk illness.

As issues such as the growing global population, hunger, and food waste are discussed with increasing regularity, it is important to have clear communications around how long we can enjoy food before it must be thrown away due to a safety concern. Only relatively recently, it seems, have we realized that there are many different (and incorrect) interpretations of what “Sell By” on food packaging means (and it is not the date by which the food must be consumed before it goes “bad”!) There is also confusion around when a food is no longer safe to eat versus when it is still safe, but may no longer be the best quality. In fact, you may have noticed some food producers changing the language on the package to help consumers know hat to do. Terms such as “Enjoy by,” which is directed to consumers (instead of “Sell By,” which is directed to retailers) provide clearer guidance about how long you can continue to consume a food.

However, it is not an exact science, which is why at some point many of us have had a run-in with foodborne illness. Trusting your instincts is also important – all philosophies aside, if a food looks or smells off or otherwise doesn’t seem right, no one needs to tell you what to do! When in doubt, throw it out.

For more useful information and definitions of the various food product “dating” terms (e.g. “Sell-by,” “Use-by,” etc.) that appear on product labels, visit the USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service Food Product Dating page.

Happy National Food Safety Month! How do you practice food safety every day? Tweet us @FoodInsight using the hashtags #foodsafety and #kannykitchen and share your best practices.

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