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Maintain Food Safety While Cutting Food Waste

By: Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

A person is using a fork to move food from a platter into a to-go container.

Food safety is a major concern for the United States. The Federal government estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually – the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans each year. And each year these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

But food waste is also a major concern. According to the Federal government, the U.S. leads the world in food waste, with Americans discarding nearly 40 million tons of food every year. That’s worth more than $161 billion and comes to about 219 pounds of waste per person, or 30-40 percent of our food supply. Most of this wasted food is sent to landfills where it decomposes and produces methane. Landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions, which are a big factor in climate change because methane is so effective at absorbing the sun’s heat, which warms the atmosphere.

The chief sources of food waste in the United States are the food industry and consumers. Within the food industry, waste occurs at every step — on the farm and with packers, processors, distributors, and retailers. Some of it is the result of economic forces, some of management problems, and some is caused simply by dumping products that are less than perfect in appearance. Several Federal agencies are cooperatively working with food industry entities to identify ways of reducing food waste.

For consumers, much food waste results from a misunderstanding of what the various wordings on product date labels mean, along with uncertainty about storage of perishable foods. Confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20 percent of consumer food waste.

Food Product Dating

Except for infant formula, manufacturers are not required by Federal law or regulation to place date labels on packaged food. For all other foods, there are no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels for open dating (calendar dates) in the U.S. Accordingly, there are differing phrases used for product dating. Manufacturers apply date labels at their own discretion and for a variety of reasons. The most common is to inform consumers and retailers of the date to which they can expect the food to retain its desired quality and flavor. Industry is moving toward more uniform practices for date labeling of packaged foods. But, for now, consumers may see different phrases used for product dating, such as Sell By, Best By, Expires On, Best if Used By, etc. These are related to best quality, not to food safety. There is, however, a free source of information on safe storage of food.

The FoodKeeper — A Guide to Safe Food Storage

The FoodKeeper is an inclusive guide to how long virtually every food available in the United States will keep in the pantry, in the refrigerator, and in the freezer. Access the FoodKeeper here, or download it as a mobile application (Android Devices | Apple Devices).

Ways to Avoid Wasting Food

  • Be aware of how much food you throw away.
  • Don’t buy more food than can be used before it spoils.
  • Plan meals and use shopping lists. Think about what you are buying and when it will be eaten. Check the fridge and pantry to avoid buying what you already have.
  • Avoid impulse and bulk purchases, especially produce and dairy that have a limited shelf life. Promotions encouraging purchases of unusual or bulk products often result in consumers buying foods outside their typical needs or family preferences, and portions — potentially large portions — of these foods may end up in the trash.
  • Check the temperature setting of your fridge. Use a refrigerator thermometer to be sure the temperature is at 40°F (4°C) or below to keep foods safe. The temperature of your freezer should be 0°F (-18°C) or below.
  • Avoid "overpacking:" Cold air must circulate around refrigerated foods to keep them properly chilled.
  • Wipe up spills immediately: It not only reduces the growth of Listeria bacteria (which can grow at refrigerator temperatures), cleaning up spills — especially drips from thawing meats — will help prevent "cross-contamination," where bacteria from one food spread to another.
  • Keep it covered: Store refrigerated foods in covered containers or sealed storage bags, and check leftovers daily for spoilage.
  • Refrigerate peeled or cut produce for freshness and to keep them from going bad.
  • Use your freezer! Freezing is a great way to store most foods to keep them from going bad until you are ready to eat them. The FoodKeeper has information on how long most common foods can be stored in the freezer.
  • Check your fridge often to keep track of what you have and what needs to be used. Eat or freeze items before you need to throw them away.
  • When eating out, become a more mindful eater. If you’re not terribly hungry, request smaller portions. Bring your leftovers home and refrigerate or freeze them within two hours and check the FoodKeeper to see how long they’ll be safe to eat.
  • To keep foods safe when entertaining, remember the 2-Hour Rule: don’t leave perishable foods out at room temperature for more than two hours, unless you're keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold. If you’re eating outdoors and the temperature is above 90°F (32°C), perishable foods shouldn’t be left out for more than one hour.