Last week I got a surprise present of fresh strawberries. We usually eat strawberries with condensed milk (wicked but yummy), but we had none in the house. Cream is the next best option and, lo and behold, there was an unopened container in the fridge. It was dated ‘best before January 6’, but once you got past the thick congealed top of the cream, the bottom was perfectly fine. How did I know that? Because, I smelled it. It smelled fine, so then I tasted it. It tasted fine, with no trace of sourness. The strawberries and cream were a delicious treat and nobody got sick.
These days you’d think that I was risking my life by consuming double cream that was twenty days past its best before date. We have gotten so used to letting a tiny stamp on our food make decisions about what we can eat that we’ve lost our basic common sense about food and food preparation.
I grew up without any best by/sell by/display by dates. I don’t have that sense of imminent danger that warns me that a food product will, at best make me sick, and at worst kill me stone dead, one minute past midnight after the date on the package. I am not scared of sour milk. I don’t drink it because it tastes sour, but I use it in baking and pancakes. I know that mould on cheese, or jam, only needs to be scooped out and the rest is fine. I was taught to be wary of eggs, because sometimes an older egg would sneak into a box. You know immediately if an egg is off. It’s nasty. There’s nothing worse than breaking an egg into a batter and smell that horrible stench. That’s why I always break an egg into a cup before adding it to whatever I’m cooking, no matter what the date on the carton says.
Best before dates have created a sense of creeping menace. It fosters a belief that food gets incrementally worse for you as the date approaches. Then overnight it becomes deadly. That’s a load of codswallop. Would you eat something that smelled vile just because the stamp said it was still good? Trust yourself. You know if it’s gone off.
And then there’s cooking. There’s a reason that so much ethnic cooking in hot countries is based on spices, marinades and long hours of bubbling in a big pot. Produce goes off fast in the heat, but boiling it with spices, vinegar, wine, onions and garlic all make that food safer to eat. If you know how to cook properly you should never have to worry about food poisoning.
You should be a lot more worried about throwing food out. It has been estimated that in Europe, 20 per cent of household food shopping is thrown out. That mountain of waste is largely hidden from sight, but it threatens to engulf us all if we don’t cop on.
In the United States 40 per cent of grocery shopping is thrown out uneaten. Excessive buying certainly contributes to this appalling waste, but a recent study indicates that dates on food expiration labels are also to blame. Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (a non-profit environmental group), carried out a study that found that over 90 per cent of Americans may be prematurely binning food because they misinterpret expiration dates. The study found that phrases like ‘sell by’, ‘use by’, and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated and often misinterpreted: ‘Faulty expiration-date rules are confusing at best. ‘Sell by’ dates are actually for stores to know how much shelf life products have. They are not meant for consumers or to indicate the food is bad. ‘Best before’ and ‘use by’ dates are for consumers, but they are manufacturers’ estimates as to when food has reached its peak.’ In other words, a best before date is not an estimate of when it becomes inedible.
Which is why I was so pleased to go to the Food Rescue event held last Sunday in O’Donovan’s Hotel, Clonakilty. Food Rescue events were started by Voice (www.voiceireland.org) to empower local groups to hold dinners with food that shops would have thrown away or rejected (misshapen vegetables for example). Scally’s SuperValu and Harte’s Spar in Clonakilty provided the produce and Richy Virishwamy of Richy’s Bistro and Adam Medcalf, head chef at the Inchydoney Lodge and Spa, along with volunteers cooked it all up. Two hundred people jammed O’Donovan’s, and were served wonderful Birayni rice and bread and butter pudding. The dessert was a stroke of genius as the #1 food product that households bin is bread. Congratulations to the organisers : ‘Waste not, want not’ was never as fun, informative and delicious.