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Posts Tagged ‘food’

Will Food Label Confusion Go Away?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

use by label

Photo: USDA

When teaching consumers and those who prepare food for day care centers, food pantries, shelters, and senior lunch programs, I always spend a bit of time talking about food labels. Not the nutrition labels, which can also be confusing to the average consumer, but the “safety and quality” labels.

At this time, there are several phrases used by food manufacturers and retailers to help consumers and food preparers to know about the food they are about to purchase or prepare. These phrases include:

  • Sell by
  • Use by
  • Expires
  • Best if used by
  • Best before

These are all examples of open dating, a calendar date that the manufacturer or retailer applies to a food product. The calendar date provides consumers with information on the estimated period of time for which the product will be of best quality and/or to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. Some manufactures also use a closed dating code that is usually for the purposes of record keeping or tracking products in case of a recall. Often these dates or codes are a series of numbers and letters that the consumer may or may not be able to decipher.

When these dates are used on perishable foods, such as dairy products, eggs or meat, fish or poultry, consumers might think that once the date is reached, it is time to toss to food in the garbage. But that is not the case.

Safety vs Quality

First of all, keep in mind that none of these dates are required by Federal law. The one exception is for infant formula. Because formula is basically the sole source of nutrition for infants up to a certain age, and the essential nutrients (vitamins, especially) can break down, so that the formula is no longer providing what the baby needs for healthy growth and development. Some states do require such labels. Connecticut requires that dairy products including milk, cheese and raw milk, have a “sell by” or “last date of sale” label.

The purpose of these dates is to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality—not necessarily safety.

Perishable foods, obviously, do not last forever. However, they are generally (if handled properly prior to eating), perfectly safe well past the sell by date on the container. Again, if safely handled (refrigerated properly during storage and transportation), eggs are safe as many as 4-6 weeks after the sell by date; dairy products 3-7 days after the sell by date, ground meat or fresh fish (1-2 days), deli cold cuts, 3-5 days and steaks, chops or roasts, 3-5 days. Again, these time ranges are guidelines. If there are signs of spoilage—odor, color change, sliminess—then toss the food, no matter the date! Unfortunately, the bugs that cause illness will not tell you they are there—they don’t make food smell bad or taste funny. Personally, I would throw out any foods beyond the time limits in this paragraph, if the sell by date is past or once I have opened them.

In addition, if you freeze any of these foods, you can extend the shelf life. While quality can suffer in the freezer (dehydration or freezer burn, rancidity in high fat foods), it is unlikely that the food will become dangerous to eat if frozen too long. Use by and sell by dates become meaningless if freezer storage is involved. But, consider the same time frames for using up these foods once defrosted: use ground meat in 1-2 days, fish in 1-2 days, cold cuts in 3-5 days and dairy products within 3-7 dates after defrosting.

Other foods present little or no food safety issues, no matter how long they are kept. Quality is the problem here. Chips, crackers, cereals and snack foods, especially if made from whole grains, can go stale and/or rancid over time. The exact length of time will depend on storage conditions. If it is warm or humid or if the food is exposed to sunlight where you store these foods, they are likely to suffer quality losses faster. But it will not hurt you to taste these foods yourself to see if they are still edible. While bread is similar, its moisture content may make it more prone to mold growth. If you see any mold growth, the bread should go. Mold can develop toxins that may cause illness or may be cancer causing. Don’t eat food that isn’t supposed to have mold on it.

New guidelines

In order to further reduce the wasting of perfectly good, but “out dated” food, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are advising their members to rethink their safety and quality labels. They are proposing that only two labels be used. “Best if Used By” would be on most foods—indicating a loss of quality over time. But, for those that potentially pose a food safety risk, becoming less safe over time, the “Use By” label would be more appropriate.

People have been clamoring for simplification of these labels for a very long time. But concerns about food waste – whether for environmental, economic, or other reasons—have driven this most recent attempt to make quality and safety labels easier to understand.

For more information on food labels and food storage, go to foodsafety.uconn.edu or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Conversations Around Food

EFNEPImagine running out of food, with small children to feed, and no food stamps for another week. Friday’s paycheck has to pay your utility bill, or they will cut off your electricity. Feeling panicked yet? Picture what it was like, over 40 years ago, to have someone from UConn Extension knock on your door and ask if you need help learning how to feed your family for less.

Since 1969, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) educators have been helping thousands of families and youth in some of the most challenged neighborhoods in Connecticut.

While parts of Connecticut are affluent, our state has deep pockets of poverty that can lead to food insecurity and hunger. Some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country are in urban areas of our state. Food deserts, or areas that lack access to grocery stores and fresh food, contribute to the problem. This includes urban centers as well as more remote rural areas where transportation is a major hurdle for accessing healthy foods. Coupled with the challenging economy, the state has seen an increase in the number of families with children using soup kitchens and food assistance.

During the 1960’s, there was increasing awareness of the health problems associated with poverty. Hunger and poor nutrition were identified through several government studies. Cooperative Extension leaders recognized that programming was not reaching low-income populations as well as it could. In 1962, several states conducted pilot projects focusing on the best way to reach this audience with food and nutrition information. Throughout the mid 1960’s, effective land-grant university projects helped to build administrative support for establishing a program within Cooperative Extension.

EFNEP is the oldest federal nutrition education program for low-income families, being formally established in 1969. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) administers EFNEP at land-grant universities in all U.S. states and territories, and the District of Columbia. The program provides practical, hands-on food and nutrition education to tackle societal challenges such as hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and obesity.

UConn Extension has eleven EFNEP educators in communities throughout the state. EFNEP is active in cities such as Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Willimantic, Bridgeport, and Danbury. Bilingual programs and materials, cooking classes, and educational trips to the grocery store are a few offerings.

When the program first began, EFNEP educators did knock on doors to recruit participants. Today, EFNEP staff develop relationships with community-based organizations and agencies who work with low-income families and youth. One of the first pilot projects, in the 1960’s, was conducted in a Bridgeport housing project. Dr. Janina Czajkowski-Esselen directed this pilot project. She was one of the visionary thinkers who helped develop the concepts behind the EFNEP program.

There is a unique peer educator component in EFNEP, which has since been used in communities around the world. The program considers the situation of each participant, and tries to help them identify and determine solutions to their issues around food choices, shopping, feeding families, food safety, and food insecurity.

The program meets clients where they are, and considers economics, culture, and literacy in programs and materials. Educators use interactive, hands-on teaching methods through conversations, not lectures.

Participants develop skills that can help them improve their food and nutrition practices for better health and quality of life. Depending on the situation of the family, this may mean just having enough food at home to last from payday to payday.

UConn EFNEP educators serve as a link between program participants and other local agencies, including federal programs such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp program) that participants may qualify for.

In 2015, EFNEP reached 1,850 participants, and 2,089 family members. Since the program’s inception, over 48,000 families with more than 150,000 family members, and close to 200,000 youth have learned from educators about improving health and quality of life. For more information about EFNEP, visit the NIFA website:nifa.usda.gov/program/expanded-food-and-nutrition-education-program-efnep

Be A Scientist for a Day

UConn Extension is hosting a large-scale statewide science project on May 8th

 

ext_top_p_289On May 8, 2014, UConn Extension is asking the public to join our faculty, staff, 4-H volunteers, and master gardeners in a vast science project across the state, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of UConn Extension. One hundred years ago on that date, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Lever Act to serve as a conduit for scientific advances in agriculture, nutrition, and natural resources from the nation’s public, land-grant universities to its farmers, youth, and communities.

“UConn Extension ties research to real life for Connecticut communities, citizens, and businesses,” said Mike O’Neill, Associate Dean and Associate Director of UConn Extension. “To celebrate the anniversary of Cooperative Extension, we are asking citizens to be scientists for a day so that all of us will better understand our natural, agricultural, and urban communities.”

“Our programs create practical, science-based tools and technologies to help solve complex problems,” O’Neill continues. “Extension provides outreach, knowledge, and expertise to the public in areas such as: economic viability, business and industry, community development, agriculture, and natural resources.”

Background:

To participate in the UConn Extension Celebration of Science and Service on May 8, people just need to answer any or all of the following three questions:

What do you do for your health?

UConn Extension knows that sometimes it isn’t motivation; it’s just finding the time. On May 8th – we challenge you to fifteen minutes of fitness. Go for a walk, run, bike ride, play basketball, or garden. Be creative. In our 4-H youth development program, healthy living is a holistic approach that addresses eating a healthy diet, engaging in physical activity, recognizing and directing emotions, and developing and maintaining positive social interactions.

Spend fifteen minutes on May 8th focusing on healthy living. Then fill out the form on our blog, or post your name, your town, and what you did on our Facebook page, email this information to extension@uconn.edu or call us with your results: 860-486-9228.

How do you conserve water?

Do you conserve water in your garden, landscape, household, or farm? UConn Extension encourages all residents to sign up for the 40 Gallon Challenge. Sign up today, and then fill out the form on our blog, or post your name, your town and how you plan to conserve water to our Facebook page, email this information to extension@uconn.edu, or call us: 860-486-9228.

“Connecticut is a water rich state,” O’Neill notes. “But drought conditions out west, population growth, and increasing water demands are adding stress to the water supply locally and nationally. Reducing water usage at home will also help homeowners keep more money in their wallets.”

barnum vegetablesWhere is food grown in your community?

Do you grow your own food or get homegrown food from a neighbor who gardens? Is there a community farm nearby, a farmer’s market or farm stand? This project encourages you to discover exactly where food is grown in your community, and at the same time contribute to a statewide understanding of how widespread local food production is throughout Connecticut.

Sign up for UConn Extension’s 10% Local Campaign and then fill out the form on our blog, or post your name, your town and how you plan to buy 10% local to our Facebook page, email the details to extension@uconn.edu, or call us: 860-486-9228.

UConn Extension will be tracking the results of our May 8th science project on our website, blog and Facebook page.

About UConn Extension

This year, during our 100th Anniversary, UConn Extension celebrates the millions of youth, adults, families, farmers, community leaders and others who engage in our learning opportunities designed to extend knowledge and change lives.  UConn Extension will continue to serve as the premier provider of educational services to all Connecticut residents outside of traditional classroom settings.