Last Chance Foods: A Clean Kitchen for the New Year

Food safety expert Marion Nestle expalins what to keep and what to toss.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Food safety expert Marion Nestle confesses that the oldest spices in her pantry likely date to when she first moved into her apartment — about 20 years ago. While they’re not going to be unsafe to eat, she does add with a chuckle that it’s probably time to throw them out. With the start of a new year, now is a good time to shuffle through pantries and refrigerators to purge old and expired items.

“If you open [a spice] up and you sniff it, and it doesn’t smell like anything, you know, it’s really time to get rid of it,” said Nestle, who is the author of "Safe Foods: The Politics of Food Safety."

When considering refrigerated items, vinegar-based foods are generally safe to keep for a longer amount of time. Nestle hesitates to specify whether “a long time” means a matter of weeks, months or years, however, but says to use good judgement.

“It is fungible because you can’t really tell,” she explained. “It’s very, very unlikely that a high-vinegar product is going to get contaminated with anything that’s going to hurt you.”

That’s because the high level of acid in those foods usually kill most harmful bacteria. But if those pickles are long past expired, and starting to look grungy, then it’s time to toss them.

“You can be a little flexible about high-acid products, but, yeah, [the sell by date] is a pretty good indication that you might want to say, ‘Do I really need this?’” said Nestle.

On the other hand, milk is one item where expiration dates are serious deadlines. In New York City, much milk will often have two dates listed on it.

“The second date is usually shorter, and it’s because if you live in New York, the chances are that milk has been sitting out at room temperature some place between cow and grocery store and it goes bad faster,” said Nestle.

Pre-wrapped foods such as processed cheeses and lunch meats are also some of the first foods that need to be thrown out. That’s because they can harbor dangerous listeria, which is the bacteria that contaminated cantaloupe this past fall, killing 30 people.

“Listeria is the one bacteria that I can think of that is perfectly happy to grow in the refrigerator,” Nestle said.

Leftovers generally keep longer, since cooking brings food to 160 degrees or higher. That makes the food and container in which it was cooked sterile. Nestle also weighs in on the debate on whether food should cool on the counter before being refrigerated.

“It depends on what [the leftovers] are, but I think straight into the refrigerator is always the best idea because that will eventually bring the temperature down a little faster,” she said. “The Department of Agriculture is very strict about what you can do and it advises you to throw away leftovers after three to five days. That seems optimistic to me.”

Nestle admits that she sometimes pushes those limits.

“I think the Department of Agriculture guidelines are very conservative,” she said. “If you follow those guidelines, you won’t make yourself sick from the food. And most food-borne illness doesn’t come from what people do at home anyway. It’s in the food before it gets to you.”

Cutting Board Etiquette

The news about cutting boards, said Nestle, is that it doesn’t really make a difference whether you use wood or plastic. What is important is to keep separate ones for meats and raw foods.

“Cutting boards are only a problem if you’re cutting un-sterile things on them,” she noted. “So the rule about cutting boards is you have to keep kosher: You have one for vegetables and one for meat. And you make sure you that never do raw and cooked foods on the same cutting boards. And you’re supposed to wash them frequently with hot soapy water.”

Also, once cutting boards start to look grungy, it’s probably time to replace them. Of course, “grungy” is relative, so go with your instinct.


Marion Nestle

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Comments [5]


NYC milk no longer has 2 sell by dates as they used to. NY dropped the earlier dates about a year or two ago, and now share the same date as outside of NY.

Jan. 11 2012 10:24 PM
Mareya Ibrahim from Orange County, CA

My feeling is, if you're handling food as a home cook, you need to know the basics so you don't put your guests and family in the hospital. People need to know the real skinny on this. Every food needs to be evaluated - produce, meat, seafood, poultry - and cleaned, handled, cooked and chilled properly from A-Zucchini. As food safety experts, we'd love to me a resource for you.

Jan. 07 2012 12:48 PM

Come on, there's a science to how quickly food needs to be brought down to a safe temperature (38f) and how long it can remain in the danger zone (40-120f), whether or not food should cool in the refrigerator depends on what it is and how long it will take to cool, and how much of it there is, You wouldn't want to put a huge pot of boiling hot soup in the fridge and raise the temp of your perishables over 40f. Why not interview a registered food safety instructor instead of an author with folksy advice?

Jan. 07 2012 01:19 AM

"SELL BY" is not "USE BY". You and your guest both confused these terms and recommended that folk throw out milk that has passed it's "SELL BY" date. The SELL BY date has a built in several day and in some cases weeks before the item will spoil if properly stored. Milk PURCHASED on the "SELL BY" date is good for up to a week thereafter if refrigerated properly.

Throwing out food on "SELL BY" date is wasteful, uneconomical, and totally misconstrues the term.

Jan. 06 2012 03:17 PM
Dick Leavitt from Hartsdale NY

Professor Marion Nestle said, as summarized on this web page, that "Pre-wrapped foods such as processed cheeses ... are also some of the first foods that need to be thrown out. That’s because they can harbor dangerous listeria, which is the bacteria that contaminated cantaloupe this past fall, killing 30 people." To the contrary, industrial processing of cheeses kills bacteria, and post-production wrapping protects against bacterial contamination. The cheeses that pregnant women and other special-risk people should be most concerned about are fresh, soft ones like queso fresco -- especially if not wrapped.

Jan. 05 2012 10:05 PM

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About Last Chance Foods

Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.


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