If I had a regular radio show, I’d call it “What Would You Un-Invent” and I’d invite guests on to suggest things they think humankind was better without. Okay, it’s not a snappy title, but it’s a flipping brilliant idea.
I’d interview myself first, of course.
“So, I’ve got Dillie Keane here. Dillie is an ecobloggista who sits at her desk and frets about the future of the planet. Dillie, what would you un-invent?”
“Thanks Dillie. Excellent question, but not easy to answer because there are so many candidates, wet wipes being high on the list. However, as it’s my own programme and I shall be back next week to interview me again, I’m going to plump for sell-by dates.”
“Super! And when were sell-by dates first used?”
“In the 1950s, actually. A bright spark at Marks & Spencer dreamt it up…”
“Ha, bright spark, Marks & Sparks! Very good.”
“Do try to be serious. As I was saying, it was introduced for foodstuffs in their storerooms, but it had to wait for another 20 years before it made it to the supermarket shelves. Now food dating is everywhere, and it scares people into binning perfectly good food every day. For instance, that Pret a Manger pasta salad dated yesterday which is in the bin beside you.”
“Had you remembered to put it in the fridge overnight after you decided you weren’t hungry after all, you could have happily eaten it today.”
“And when that salad, along with all the other mountains of unused food that people can’t be arsed to eat, rots quietly away in landfills, it emits loads and loads of methane which as we all know is a major contributor to Climate Change. And now, of course, food dating is mandatory in Europe.”
“Right! So, given that food dating is mandatory in Europe, is this a good thing, Dillie?”
“A highly questionable law, in my humble opinion, Dillie! But it’s also widely adopted outside the EU – entirely voluntarily! So you don’t just have to be an EU Quangocrat to be a meddling twat.“
“Oh dear, we’ll have to cut that. Can’t allow use of the word “twat”. The phone will be red hot with listeners from the Home Counties who don’t give a damn about Climate Change but who DO hate bad language.”
Food dating = food waste
According to WRAP, a UK based charity which aims to reduce waste (amongst other equally noble aims), we throw out £20 billion worth of food waste every year in the UK alone. That amounts to a staggering £810 per family per year. This is food classified as “edible“, as opposed to bones, pips, rind, etc., which is defined as “inedible”. (Incidentally, if you give your leftover steak to your dog, that’s not counted as food waste.)
It’s even worse in the USA. According to Climate Central, an extremely respectable independent organization of leading scientists and journalists, 40% of food produced for consumption in America is chucked out every year. This is equivalent of $165 billion dollars worth of food each year. Blow me down, but that’s an awful lot of greenhouse gas being created.
Nowadays you hear a lot about how cattle are poisoning the planet with their farts. In fact, food waste produces 34% of all methane emissions in the USA, which is not far off equalling the methane emissions from ruminant livestock (42%) – cows, sheep and buffalo – which are the chief flatulent culprits. Worldwide, the figure is much lower – ruminants contribute between 14-18% of methane. And Methane heats the planet WAAAAAY faster than CO2, though to be fair, CO2 hangs round a lot longer.
This isn’t an argument that we can relax about meat-eating, but it shows there is no moral high-ground. Rotting vegetables and fruit are every bit as pernicious as rotting meat.
What’s more, this habit of chucking good food is making us poor and the supermarkets very rich.
Who to blame?
Simple. All of us in the super-wealthy “West”. We should be ashamed.
- We plan badly; instead of organising our meals in advance, we impulse buy and guzzle as our whims dictate.
- We’re visually tricked into buying food we don’t need. Supermarket psychologists know exactly where to place yummy treats that aren’t on our list. “Whoops, did I really need those choccy puddings?”
- Supermarkets simply ADORE selling us too much food – that big bag of carrots, for instance. Too often we only use a portion of it and the rest turns to mush in the bottom drawer of the fridge.
- Some of us (me for instance) have terrible food anxiety. I am genuinely paranoid about not being able to feed the family. Who knows, six years of the Irish famine may have imprinted in the family genes? This isn’t just fantastic speculation – there is a growing theory that cultural trauma can be transmitted down the generations. Luckily, my anxiety over food waste is even greater than my fear of starvation.
- And just because I think this point is worth repeating over and over again, we chuck food because we are BAMBOOZLED into doing so by the bloody date on the bloody package.
So let’s just note the difference between the various terms, because these can be confusing.
Sell-by (or display until)
This just means the the shop has to sell the item by a certain date. It doesn’t mean the food has gone off. It does NOT mean you have to get rid of it if it’s in your fridge. But it’s confusing. As a result, garbage bins get another helping of food, glorious food. This is from Business Insider.
- “Here’s a little secret about those “sell-by date” labels you see on food packages… consumers should know they’re not safety dates, according to the US department of Agriculture.”
Not only that, they are not required by law – not in the UK, anyhow. They are added for stock control only.
Best By (or Best Before)
Again, this doesn’t mean the food has gone off by the date on the carton. It just means that it’s at its optimum on that day. Do remember, however, that prepared foods have so many preservatives in them that the “best by” dates might not apply.
This is the most unsettling of all. You’ll see it on tins of food, packets of dried lentils and all sorts of other comestibles that have an incredibly long shelf life. The not-so-subtle message is “Use by… or else!”
A great mystery…?
So how come people didn’t all die of food poisoning before packaging was stamped with proscriptive dates, and before refridgeration? Time for some bullet points. (I’m very fond of a list, as you have probably already divined.)
- People bought fresh on an almost daily basis.
- Everything was cooked from scratch.
- People had noses, eyes and tongues in those days. We seem to have lost ours.
Whoops, not only was that a lovely short list, but I have just looked at my face in the mirror and I DO have a nose, two eyes and a tongue! So do you!
A few ideas for avoiding waste!
Another list, oh joy! (You may be thoroughly waste-savvy already, in which case, don’t read on. But I’m constantly surprised at how unconfident people are about food… and I’m covering my back so that no-one can accuse me of encouraging them to give their family salmonella…)
- Use your eyes. If it’s a funny colour, or is growing a grey, green and bubbly coating, don’t risk it. Scrape that bit off and taste the underneath part. If it tastes ok, it’s ok. (The only thing I share with Teresa May is that I scrape mould off jam and eat it. All right, I have also run through fields of wheat but I did a lot more while I was in the field than she ever did, I’ll wager.)
- If it has separated or curdled, it’s probably off. Before pasteurisation, our grannies used sour milk or cream to make soda bread and stroganoff. However, since pasteurisation and homogenisation, milk doesn’t go sour like it used to – scientists can tell you why, but I can’t, and sour milk these days is horrid. (Note for no reason – this soda bread recipe is the dogs’ bollocks and it uses fresh milk!)
- Use your nose. If it smells wrong, chuck it.
- Still not sure? Use your tongue. A tiny taste won’t poison you. If it’s sour when it shouldn’t be, bin it.
- Oddly fizzy? Bin it.
- Tinned food lasts a lot longer than the date. Because of food labelling laws, (grr), manufacturers have to pluck a date out of the air to give a rough guideline but that’s all it is. We have all found a tin of beans or whatever at the back of the cupboard dating from prehistory. So open the can, have a gander, if it looks ok, stick yer finger in it and have a lick. Does it taste like it should? It’s fine.
- Dried foods – pulses etc – last really well. Ignore the dates. If you see tiny crawly insects, these are weevils and you must chuck ’em.
- Cheese gone hard isn’t bad. It’s just not as nice as it was. If it’s Cheddar or another hard cheese, grate it on top of pasta. If it’s a soft cheese, melt it on toast under the grill. If it’s got a greenish tinge, cut that bit off and eat the rest. (Pregnant women – check all cheeses on the internet for safety. The NHS website, for instance.)
- Leftovers are fine. Don’t chuck ’em unless you have a labrador. If you don’t have a greedy mutt and are in doubt over how to use leftovers, consult Jack Monroe’s brilliant website, Cooking on a Bootstrap. You’ll find some excellent ideas for leftovers. And check Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall too – he’s very excercised about food waste.
- Is the food squidgy when it should be firm? Wrinkled when it needs to be plump? Soft when it should be crispy or brittle? Probably edible, in spite of being not especially appetising.
- Leftover rice? Bacteria (B. cereus, which sounds ridiculous when you say it) goes bonkers in cooked rice left out in the open. Refrigerate or regret! And if you haven’t used it the next day, don’t risk it on day two.
- Can you see lots of wriggling white things? OMG, you should have chucked it LONG ago! Unless, of course, you are partial to Casu Marzu, a now illegal Sardinian pecorino cheese that’s deliberately infected and only eaten when crawling with maggots. I’ve got a fairly strong stomach, but the very thought of this makes me giddy with revulsion. Still, each to his own…
- If your loaf of bread has gone a bit stale, spritz it lightly with water and toast it. Or keep it in the freezer and bring it out slice by slice because it freezes really well. Stale bread makes yummy croutons, bread & butter pud, and breadcrumbs. If it’s gone green, sing Goodnight Irene and chuck it. And buy less.
We all fail. When I send the Beloved to do the shopping with a list, he comes back with cheddar when I wanted mozzarella, more dips than you can shake a stick at. Honestly, he has no idea of how much hummus two people can get through in a week. Then I’ll rush to the shops without warning him, come home with a bag of fruit, only to find he’s bought two melons, a mango, a punnet of blueberries, a box of nardicots and a bunch of bananas.
(Note: nardicot was my favourite new word of 2014. I’d never noticed the word before but suddenly it seemed to be everywhere. I’d always called them easy peelers.)
My friend Margaret (frequently mentioned here) tells me that following recipes can be a recipe for food waste, because you buy special ingredients that you don’t use again. So it’s great to read that some of the more responsible food writers are keen to help you use your leftovers wisely.
Foods you can safely eat after the use-by date
- Hard cheese.
- Crisps and packeted snacks.
- Cake (especially made with butter rather than margarine).
- Dried pulses – lentils, barley etc.
- Canned food.
- Goat’s milk (you won’t believe how long it lasts).
- Cow’s milk.
- Eggs. Older eggs make better hardboiled eggs – much easier to peel. Worried about them? Try the float test – if they sink to the bottom of a bowl of water and stand on their end, they’re super fresh. If the sink and like on their side, they’re a bit older, but still fine. If they float, they’re bad bad bad. Another method is to crack them open one by one into a cup before using – it’s very frustrating to have to throw your cake mixture out because you dropped a stinky old egg into the batter. And yes, you will DEFINITELY know a bad egg when you see it and smell it. Black, and smelling like the entire congregation has just blown off.
- Vegetables of any sort. You can rescue slightly wilted leaves, or tired cauliflower/asparagus/celery etc by popping them into a bowl of cold water in the fridge. The transformation will astonish you.
The Three Grand Exceptions
- Never mess with chicken. Salmonella in chicken develops quickly and will make you VERY sick. Use all meats quickly, and follow guidelines on the packet. Best of all, don’t buy it at all unless you intend to use it by its recommended date.
- Never mess with seafood. Only cook from fresh.
- Never mess with ordinary pork. Ham keeps, bacon keeps for ages. That’s because cured pork products are, er, cured. Preserved, in other words. Fresh pork isn’t.
The best rule of all…?
IF YOU DON’T NEED IT, DON’T BUY IT!
To help yourself stick to this rule, always go the to supermarket with a list. Do not deviate from it. Do not buy that tempting tub of mackerel paté, or that bumper packet of drumsticks you just trollied past – it’s not on your list! Plan your meals, and buy what you need. Resist the lure of BOGOF offers. This doesn’t have to exclude treats, but it’ll keep your bills down and your food waste to a minimum.
Better still, if we ALL do this, it’ll make the supermarkets slightly less obscenely wealthy. Don’t forget – it is not in their interest to make you buy less or waste less. And you will start to trust your own judgement on whether your food is good or not.
Isn’t that something to aim for?
What you’ll save
£810 a year?
Testing my theory to the max, I tried an experiment a couple of weeks ago. I found a tub of taramasalata in the fridge which was 34 days out of date. Yes, THIRTY FOUR DAYS!!!! The seal on the tub was perfect, and when I opened it, there was not the faintest hint of a “wrong” smell – and it looked scrummy. Taking my life in my hands, I ate two large teaspoons of the stuff. It struck me that if anything was going to make me ill, it would be processed cod’s roe. It was delicious.
The next day, undisturbed by any digestive cataclysm, I ate two more large teaspoons.
I’m still here. No sickness. Which makes me wonder… what the hell do they do to our food??????