Expiration vs. Sell-By Dates: Debating the Shelf Life of Food

When do you throw out food? Trader Joe’s former president Doug Rauch hopes your answer is NEVER.

In May, Rauch is opening a cafe-grocery store called The Daily Table in Dorchester, Mass that will use and sell expired food.

… so-called expired food is something of an overlooked commodity. At some point along the chain of production, from when it’s grown to when it’s left on a consumer’s dinner plate, 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. each year is wasted, and $165 billion goes in the trash.

Meanwhile, nearly 15 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2012, meaning there were times when they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from — let alone whether it would be healthy and wholesome. The connection seems obvious: As Ashley Stanley, whose food recovery nonprofit transports supermarket excess to local Boston food banks, put it, “It’s the most solvable, preventable, unnecessary problem we’ve got.”

I don’t know about you, but suddenly I feel like I’m in an outtake of The East. Still, the article makes a good point and the conversation around how long that pot of spaghetti in your fridge is really edible is evergreen. (For more, check out "Food Expiration Dates Mean Absolutely Nothing.") Today, I asked my Jezebel team how long they keep stuff before throwing it out and the answers ran the gamut, from 'Three days tops' to ‘Hey, whenever it smells like death.’ Confused? Guess what? There’s a website for that!

Still Tasty helps answer questions about how long will your food and drinks stay safe and, er, tasty. The site also offers advice on the best way to store your nibbles to maximize freshness. Here are a few items that surprised us:

— No one knows how long red wine remains fresh, but past a few days things definitely fall into ‘Whatever it is you like’ territory. The site says you can freeze an opened bottle, corked, for 4-6 months and still defrost it later, but I think I’ve done something like this and the result tasted odd.

— Ketchup that’s been opened should only stay in the fridge for six months, even though it’s a condiment, and only one month if kept in the pantry.

— Olive Oil can last 18-24 months whether it’s opened and kept inside or outside of a refrigerator. I don’t know if that makes me happy or wonder if it’s got some Twinkie-type ingredients that could withstand a nuclear bomb.

— Mayonnaise, if opened, should only stay in your fridge for two to three months after the sell-by date. How old is your mayo? You should probably throw out your mayo. I know I will, tonight.

— Cooked salmon can last three to four days in the refrigerator but two to three months in the freezer.

— Cooked brown rice should stay in the fridge for four to six days, but past that, toss it.

— Fresh eggs, when frozen, can last one year in the freezer. How crazy is that? But if you keep them in the fridge, they'll be ready for that breakfast meal for at least three to five weeks.

That’s all I looked up, but you’re welcome to continue the “Keep It or Toss It?” party. If anything, this post has reminded me of the importance of freezing half of my big dishes after I cook them so I don't have to work so hard. Just me?

Image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock