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Chuckers and keepers: How misleading food labels divide us

I stare into my refrigerator at a Publix egg carton stamped with a "best by" date that came and went one day earlier.

So. Do I risk it?

Do I make curried deviled eggs for my book club using eggs no longer deemed "best?" Do I risk the stomachs of a dozen people using food now rendered suspicious?

As usual, when the expiration date on my food has come and gone, the ruling is: Chuck it.

This domestic policy has created a small partisan divide in my household. Seems there are we cautious chuckers for whom "sell-by," "best-by" and especially "use-by" dates mean deadline, period, and those who, after a sniff of a carton of cream with a positive result, consider the date mere suggestion.

Turns out the latter types may be right.

A new report from the National Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic found those dates don't usually indicate the safety of our food, but are instead about its peak of freshness.

Confusion about these dates — apparently, it's not just me — has 90 percent of us tossing out perfectly edible food, the report says. It may contribute to the 40 percent of food in this country that doesn't get eaten.

Besides the bigger issue there that needs fixing, it made me wonder about a world divided between absolutist chuckers and the more trustful among us.

Is it about gender? Ideology, even?

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn reports that his wife, Dr. Cathy Lynch, is "far more inclined to throw something away," while he is willing to carve a little fuzzy green stuff off the end of an otherwise respectable hunk of cheese.

"It may just be a guy thing," he says.

Because the mayor is a Democrat, I ask Republican Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who says, "I closely examine those dates — I'm more the fanatic on that one." His wife, "more a farm girl from Nebraska," is more likely to trust her sense of smell.

"I throw it away on the due date," says former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.

So much for theories. Maybe it's in our upbringing — those who grew up in cooler places where you left the butter on the kitchen counter all day, and those from the South where having the milk out for one minute longer than it took to splash it on your Cheerios elicited the stern rebuke, "You want that to go rancid?"

I also grew up with the Florida "outside freezer," which was not actually outside but in a utility room and big enough to hold a human body. Almost everyone on our block had one, filled with frozen burgers, hot dogs and steakettes bought in some complex neighborhood bulk-sale arrangement. Sometimes my mother would reach into its frosted depths and unearth some unidentified, undated crystallized hunk of — what? ham? lamb? who knew? — and serve it anyway.

Maybe it's just the cautiousness of anyone who has suffered a bout of food-related illness.

But information is power, and "best by" could turn out to mean use your judgment. Federal standards for uniformity in expiration labels — and someone in Congress is already talking about this — could bolster domestic consensus in my kitchen.

It could also keep us from tossing out some perfectly good food, though I'm holding the line on anything fuzzy and green.

Chuckers and keepers: How misleading food labels divide us 09/19/13 [Last modified: Thursday, September 19, 2013 10:17pm]
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