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Should You Pay Attention To The ‘Sell-By’ Dates On Food?

By Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

How often has this happened to you? You’re digging through the refrigerator looking for something to eat when suddenly you notice the “sell-by” date on the package. It’s several days past, so you toss the food out.

Americans throw away an estimated $165 billion in food every year, a good portion of it prompted by situations just like this. But in fact, most of those dates are largely meaningless.

In the first place, there’s a confusion of labels — “sell-by,” “best-by” and “use-by” are often read interchangeably by consumers, but they all mean different things.

The “sell-by” date is when the maker advises the store to pull the product from its shelves. The “best-by” date is when the maker believes the product will reach the end of its peak quality. It doesn’t mean the food isn’t safe after that.

The “use-by” date is the last date the manufacturer says the product should be used. However, this also is based on flavor and quality and it doesn’t mean the product is unsafe after that.

And, in fact, though they might look official, almost all of those dates are merely suggestions by the manufacturer. There are no federal guidelines that dictate what those terms mean or what the suggested storage times are for different foods.

Some states have rules covering some products — California regulates dairy and shellfish dates — but beyond that, you’re on your own.

According to the Department of Agriculture, package dates are used “to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It can also help the purchaser to know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date.”

Confused? You’re in good company. A 2013 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic found that 90 percent of Americans were too.

Many foods can be safely — and even pleasurably — consumed well past their designated dates, provided adequate care is taken during storage.

A website called EatByDate is a good source for more detailed advice. Milk, for example, will last in the refrigerator five to seven days beyond its typical expiration date.

Eggs are usually good for an additional three to four weeks. Dried pasta will last for a couple of years beyond its usual date and canned tuna will be good for as many as five years.

Any food, of course, should be discarded if it smells or tastes off, if it is discolored or there are signs of mold or spoilage.

If you want to get really organized, there is, of course, an app for that. It’s called EatBy and so far it’s only available on Android.

EatBy allows you to catalog all the foods in your refrigerator and pantry, specifying by what date they should be used. You can use either the manufacturer’s suggested dates, or you can enter dates of your own. It’ll alert you when the item is nearing its designated time.

An iOS app is in the works — but so far there’s still no sign of a “sniff” feature that will let you know when that carton of milk has, definitively, gone off.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Dave Goehring via Flickr

Here’s Why Buying The Ripest Produce Isn’t Always Best

By Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

We all want to shop for the ripest fruit we can find. Or do we? In some cases, the ripest fruit is not the best buy. In fact, in some cases it should be avoided.

To understand why, we first need to delve into the complexities of ripeness and maturity. And while we’re at it, let’s think a little about climacteric fruits.

Ripeness and maturity are separate but linked processes. Think of it this way: Maturity is when the fruit has assembled all the building blocks necessary to create flavor; ripeness is the process by which those blocks are assembled into something greater. When fruit is maturing, it’s developing sugar as well as all the chemical compounds that will eventually make it delicious.

Ripening is a little more complicated — it’s a bell curve that begins with hard green fruit and ends with rot. During that process, the cell walls of the fruit soften, allowing the various separate chemical compounds to mingle, turning what was once simple flavor into a perfume that’s much more complex and grand.

Some fruits mature and ripen at the same time. Citrus, berries, cucumbers, and grapes, for example, will only ripen while they’re on the plant.

But other fruits — apples, peaches, plums, nectarines, tomatoes, and some melons — will continue to ripen after they’ve been picked. We call these climacteric fruits (this is a rough outline; botanists take a somewhat more nuanced view).

This is important because one key part of the ripening process for most fruits is softening. And with softness comes vulnerability. Fruit that is completely ripe is fragile and can be damaged very easily.

So there you are at the farmers market, pawing through a wooden bin full of peaches. You’re probably not the first to do this and besides, someone had to dump them in there in the first place.

Do you want a piece of fruit that is perfectly ripe at that moment? There’s a very high probability that it is going to be beat up and bruised.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to wait a day or two, you can pick a piece of fruit that may feel firm now — and thus is much less likely to be damaged — but that nevertheless will become fully ripe without you having to do anything.

There are ways you can speed up the ripening of climacteric fruit (put it in a paper bag, add an apple or banana), but if left alone at room temperature, the fruit will take care of itself.

One big caution — ripening of climacteric fruit stops when the fruit is chilled. So store them at cool room temperature, not in the refrigerator.

Photo: Loren Javier via Flickr

Those Rising Vegetable Prices? Blame California’s Warm Winters

By Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SANTA MONICA, California — The display at the Weiser Family Farms’ stand at a recent Santa Monica farmers market was sparse, even by early spring standards — potatoes, some green shallots and garlic, a little sprouting broccoli. The lilacs that signal the start of spring for many Southern Californians came and went weeks ago.

But a couple of stalls down, a shopper could find cherries, apricots, and even peaches and nectarines that tasted like midsummer.

That, in a nutshell, is the state of California’s nearly $30 billion produce industry, which accounts for more than half of the fresh fruits and vegetables grown in America.

Fruit has been ripening and ready to pick at almost shockingly early dates. At the same time, some vegetables have been in extremely short supply, resulting in much higher than normal prices.

Lettuces are selling at wholesale for twice what they were at this time last year. Cauliflower has doubled just since February.

Although the last four years of little rain have played a role in this agricultural quandary, farmers also point to the immediate effects of two successive exceedingly warm winters, which have gone largely unnoticed in the ongoing conversation about the California drought. For shoppers, it means less salad and more dessert.

Warm weather pushes plants to grow faster and fruit to ripen earlier. And this year has been far warmer than normal. High temperatures in the vegetable-producing Salinas Valley, typically in the low 60s in January and February, spiked to near 80 several times. In Fresno, the center of California’s stone fruit industry, winter temperatures hit 15 to 20 degrees higher than normal.

The higher temperatures have interrupted the tightly orchestrated schedule of planting and harvesting that farmers rely on to ensure a smooth supply of produce throughout the year. Farmers plan their calendars with an almost military precision so that the harvest will move smoothly from one field to the next, one crop becoming ready to pick just as the last is finishing up. Warm weather pushes some fields to be ready to harvest much earlier, leaving a gap until the next set of fields is ready.

For the Weiser family, which farms about 400 acres, spring’s lilacs were blooming in March and were done by mid-April — when they usually are just getting started. Much the same was true of their other spring crops, such as carrots and parsnips.

“We’re usually a little light this time of year, but this spring the timing is just different,” said Alex Weiser, whose vegetables are regularly cited by name on menus at Southern California’s finest restaurants. The Weisers’ farmers market season for some vegetables was cut short by three weeks, and they’ve stopped going to some of their regular farmers markets entirely.

Summer, on the other hand, will be coming early. The Weisers took advantage of the warm weather to plant their highly sought Ogen and Sugar Cube melons three weeks earlier. They should ripen in a couple of weeks rather than in mid-June.

After two successive warm winters, Alex Weiser vows he’ll be ready to avoid the spring gap next time around — though, of course, there’s no guarantee that the streak of warm winters will continue.

“Next year we’ll have more to sell because we can plan for it,” he said. “We can’t take things for granted and just do what we normally would do. Things just aren’t the same as they used to be.”

The effects of the warm weather certainly aren’t limited to small farmers, as Brian Antle can attest. The third-generation grower at Salinas-based produce giant Tanimura & Antle, which farms 38,000 acres, says it became obvious early this winter that the warm weather would mess with his plans when crops such as lettuce, celery, broccoli, and cauliflower were maturing two to three weeks ahead of schedule.

Making matters worse, a spell of more seasonably cool temperatures in April slowed the growth in other fields with the same crops, which were still maturing, widening the gap further.

“Usually you might see a gap in one commodity,” Antle said, “but when I look at our sales sheet today, everything across board is much higher (in price) than it usually is.”

The shortages are reflected in the wholesale prices reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Red leaf lettuce has doubled in price from a year ago. Romaine is up 50 percent. Prices for iceberg lettuce are on the rise too.

Every increase in the wholesale price does not create a corresponding bump at retail because supermarkets prefer to keep prices as steady as possible, even if it means taking a loss sometimes. But the average retail price of a pound of broccoli was recently up more than 50 cents over 2014, and for most lettuces, the price per head was as much as 20 cents more over last year.

“As soon as we put our best-laid plans on paper, Mother Nature comes along,” said Mark McBride of Coastline Family Farms, a major vegetable grower based in the Salinas Valley. “All winter we’ve been 10 to 21 days ahead of schedule, and for the next few weeks we’re going to have to pay the piper for that” — with much less to sell, until other crops come in.

The situation is noticeably brighter for fruit lovers. Just as the warm winter weather has pushed Southern California’s glorious purple jacaranda bloom to an earlier start, so it has with tree fruit such as cherries, apricots, even peaches and nectarines.

The cherry harvest, for example, started three weeks ahead of schedule, in mid- to late April, rather than May — an eternity in the fruit industry. Partly as a result of that, retail prices were a dollar a pound cheaper last week than a year before.

Warm winter weather can cause problems for tree fruits, which need a certain amount of cold weather in order to go dormant and get enough rest to produce a healthy crop. So far this year that doesn’t seem to be a major problem. Although most farmers are predicting harvests that will be slightly smaller than average, they certainly won’t be catastrophic, as the cherry harvest was last year when it was less than one-third the typical size.

At the Saturday Santa Monica farmers market, chef Walter Manzke from highly praised Republique restaurant was pulling a trolley laden with vegetables and fruits, including nectarines, from veteran stone fruit grower Truman Kennedy.

“Buying nectarines this early is usually a little questionable,” Manzke said. “I don’t like getting fruit so early that you get sick of it before it really gets ripe and good.

“But at the same time, when it’s good, it’s good. I don’t know how (Kennedy) does it, but these have real flavor. You can’t always count on the calendar to tell you when you’re supposed to be eating something.”

Photo: Mark Boster via Los Angeles Times/TNS