April 13, 2020 - 9:41am -- matney.30@osu.edu

I’m only shopping once or twice a month now, as I abide by the Ohio Stay at Home Order during the COVID-19 pandemic. How can I make sure my food lasts as long as possible so that I don’t have to keep going back to the store?

Your question is on the minds of many people nationwide, as the majority of the country continues efforts to flatten the curve and lessen the spread of COVID-19. In Ohio, for example, on April 2, the Stay at Home Order was extended to May 1.

With that in mind, many grocery retailers are or have implemented regulations to manage social distancing measures, including making grocery aisles move in one direction and lessening the number of shoppers in the stores at the same time.

With these limitations, consumers should first shop their cupboards and develop recipes that use up foods that are the oldest but still safe eat, said Brian Roe, a professor of agricultural economics for The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). 

“Then, turn to create a list of all the foods that you need to buy before you get to the store,” Roe said. “This allows for more efficient shopping, cuts down your shopping time, and allows you to be more strategic about ensuring you get what you need so that you don’t need to make an additional shopping trip to pick up missed items.”

With that in mind, it’s important to be aware of what the date labels on food actually mean. Having a better understanding of what the sell-by date, use-by date, or best-by date on food products means can help you avoid food waste and help ensure that the food you buy lasts as long as possible.

Understanding date labels on food products is key, especially considering most people aren’t sure what those date labels on food actually mean, said Irene Hatsu, state specialist in food security for Ohio State University Extension, CFAES’ outreach arm.

In fact, according to a study by Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, more than a third of consumers throw away food once the date on the label has passed, because they mistakenly think the date is an indicator of food safety, she said.

But for most foods, the date label is a manufacturer’s best guess as to how long the product will be at its peak quality. With only a few exceptions, the majority of food products remain wholesome and safe to eat long past their label dates, the study authors said.

“Some of those exceptions include key perishable items that are typically consumed without first going through a cooking or kill step, such as deli meats and soft cheeses,” Roe said.

Infant formula is the only food product that must carry product dating under current federal law and should not be fed after the date on the label.

Raw meat, poultry, and fish should also be cooked or frozen by the date on the label, said Barbara Kowalcyk, a food safety expert and a CFAES assistant professor of food safety and public health.

“If it smells bad, it should be thrown out,” Kowalcyk said. “When in doubt, throw it out. I would be particularly cautious right now, because the last thing you want right now is to get a serious foodborne illness and have to go to the hospital.”

For guidance on when to keep or toss particular food items, consumers can turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodKeeper app or website at foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/foodkeeper-app.

The USDA says most food products—excluding for example, deli meats, soft cheeses, and infant formula (see the FoodKeeper resources for a full list)—should still be safe and wholesome after the date passes if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident. Spoilage is indicated if the food has an odor or has mold, for example.

An additional caution Kowalcyk advises for consumers when going to the grocery store is to leave their reusable bags at home.

“Most grocery stores aren’t allowing them right now,” she said. “But if you must use them, disinfect them between trips and be prepared to bag your own groceries.

“People also don’t need to disinfect their groceries or quarantine them in the garage. Just be sure to wash your hands after handling the items and before you handle food—and don’t touch your face.”

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line writer Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or turner.490@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Brian Roe, a CFAES agricultural economics professor; Barbara Kowalcyk, a food safety expert and a CFAES assistant professor of food safety and public health; and Irene Hatsu, state specialist in food security for OSU Extension.