Cooler Temps Bring Out The Baker

Northstar Notes

Just make sure those ingredients in the cupboard are relatively safe to use.

Published on: September 24, 2013

Cooler temperatures signal that little voice inside my head, telling me it's time to preheat the oven and make some cookies. Or, a pie. Or, some sort of dessert.

That's what happened to me last week. Out of the blue one evening, I was measuring flour, sugar and other ingredients to make oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries. My husband was doing some work in the basement, heard the mixer running and came up to confirm what he thought I might be doing. Before descending again, he helped himself to some raw cookie dough and then proceeded to come back upstairs every time the oven timer went off. He had to sample each fresh-from-the-oven sheet of cookies.

Before I got started baking, I went through my cupboards to see what ingredients I had.

Oh, my.

I could tell I needed to do more cooking and baking. The "best by" dates on some cans were quite old, or so I thought. I had a can of sweetened condensed milk that was "best by" 2006. Recalling a previous encounter with an-out-of-date can of sweetened condensed milk, I decided to toss this one, as well as a few other outdated canned items.

I may have acted in haste.

A couple days later, I heard about a new study that says Americans needlessly trash billions of pounds of food every year, based on of food expiration date labeling practices. A key finding of that report said that more than 90% of consumers may be prematurely tossing food because they misinterpret food labels as indicators of food safety.

Bummer. Could my out-of-date canned foods still have been edible?

The report, co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic, goes on to say how we may be confused by food labels stamped with phrases such as 'sell by', 'use by', and 'best before.' Plus, there is no consistency in state and federal regulations for food manufacturers on date labels. Most manufacturers determine date shelf life according to their own methods, too.

The report's authors contend that the U.S. should have a standardized, commonsense date labeling system that provides useful information to consumers.

That's what the General Accounting Office said back in the mid-1970s, but no one listed.

And meanwhile, FDA and USDA have the power to regulate food labeling to ensure consumers are not misled, both agencies have not exercised their authority to do so. FDA does not require food companies to place any date labels on food products, leaving the information entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. The only product for which a date is federally regulated is infant formula.

It's obvious when fresh foods are out of date. All you need to do is look and take a sniff. Common sense should dictate when to toss it.

When it comes to canned goods, the same logic applies, but only after you open it. And then you must use it.

That's probably why I still have a small jar of Marmite ("The original yeast spread") in my cupboard. I brought it back with me more than a decade ago from New Zealand when I was on a business trip.

The "best before" date is June 26, 2003.

It's a cute little jar.

I think I'll leave it intact.