One of the biggest struggles with clean eating is embracing things that are actually perishable. They wilt. They rot. And if you are already frustrated by your ability – or inability, for that matter – to cook the stuff you actually bought… you’ll probably be mad as hell looking in your fridge… and then your garbage… and then your wallet.

But never fear! Caught this in the NYTimes (y’all know I love the Times):

“Nearly two-thirds of Americans needlessly discard a quarter-gallon of milk each month,” said Ethel Tiersky, the editor of “Most people think those dates are telling you that after that, the food isn’t safe,” said Ms. Tiersky, a retired English teacher and self-described “food safety fanatic” who monitors the industry with the help of a blue-ribbon panel of professors. “They’re not. They’re about quality. ‘Past this point, the quality of the food is not at its best.’ ”Virtually nothing in your refrigerator jeopardizes your health, Ms. Tiersky added.

“The pathogens that cause food to look bad, smell bad or taste bad are not the ones that make you sick,” she said.

The real story is even shadier, I’m afraid. Much of the confusion on this issue comes from the tangle of terms applied to food (“sell by,” “use by,” best before”) and their dubious origins. With the exception of baby formula, the federal government (Agriculture Department, Food and Drug Administration, etc.) plays no role in regulating such terms or dates. At least 20 states administer regulations locally, but mostly for dairy products and usually to control how long products can be kept in stores, not how long they should be kept in your refrigerator.

The vast bulk of the dates that appear on the margins of dried, canned or packaged products were put there by manufacturers, who alone determine their decision-making process without revealing their standards. In other words, whom do you want to trust to tell you how long your food is good for? General Mills or general sense? Chef Boyardee or Chef Mom and Dad?

“We have five senses that were given to us that are the best tools for finding out whether food has gone bad,” said Bridget Lancaster, a host of “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS. “We’ve all opened a carton of milk that has three days to go and it smells bad. Conversely, we’ve all opened one where the date’s three days past and it’s still fine. My dad used to say that a weatherman has only a 50-50 chance of getting the weather right. I feel the same way with food.”

Ms. Lancaster said that to avoid squabbling with her husband, a professional chef who’s a stickler for expiration dates, she uses a “first in, first out” philosophy that many stores employ. When all else fails, she falls back on her personal motto of cooking: somebody will eat it.

“Food is to be eaten and enjoyed,” she said. “You’re not supposed to be a slave for your cooking. You’re not supposed to be stressing over what’s for dinner. There’s probably stuff in your fridge, at any moment, that you can whip into a meal. And better to use it than throw it out. It breaks my heart to throw out food.”

A second look at this quote:

Virtually nothing in your refrigerator jeopardizes your health, Ms. Tiersky added. “The pathogens that cause food to look bad, smell bad or taste bad are not the ones that make you sick,” she said.

So, now that we’ve covered processed food, the question is… what do we do about fruits and vegetables?

The first place I stopped was the USDA’s website:


Fruits and vegetables, FIRM
(such as cabbage, bell peppers, carrots, etc.)
Use. Cut off at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot (keep the knife out of the mold itself so it will not cross-contaminate other parts of the produce). Small mold spots can be cut off FIRM fruits and vegetables with low moisture content. It’s difficult for mold to penetrate dense foods.
Fruits and vegetables, SOFT
(such as cucumbers, peaches, tomatoes, etc.)
Discard SOFT fruits and vegetables with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface.

Soft fruits and veggies – like cucumbers and mushrooms – have to go, but firm ones like carrots and apples… you can cut around any moldy parts.

But since I don’t always trust the USDA… I went somewhere else, too. The FDA says:

Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Produce that looks rotten should be discarded.

And one more for good measure – an excerpt from an interview with Johnathan Bloom, author of American Wsteland:

Q: Fresh fruits and vegetables seem to spoil as soon as we buy them. Any advice?

A: Fresh produce tends to be quite delicate and easily bruised. Fruits and vegetables are also sensitive to temperature shifts. And then you throw in the beautiful, uniform appearance most stores require, and it’s a wonder that any fruits and vegetables make the cut. We can do a better job storing our produce. Mostly, that means keeping items in our fridge’s crisper. Also, we need to make friends with our paring knives. One bad spot or leaf shouldn’t doom produce to the trash.

What do you do?