Congress suggests legitimate 'sell by' dates may curb food waste

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America's food-expiration labels are essentially meaningless: Dates don't have to be scientifically derived and are little more than attempts to persuade consumers to eat products at optimal quality (fresher means repeat customers). There's the whole business of deciphering terms like "sell by," "best by," "best before," and "use by"; plus, the USDA has actually found the dates are so arbitrary, some products could last another 18 months anyway. Worse, there's no federal standard, but there is a patchwork of state and local laws that a recent Harvard study likened to "the Wild West."

Thankfully, two members of Congress have finally introduced a bill to help fix this mess. Their legislation would create a uniform federal labeling system that, among other things, neatly separates labels into two types — those dealing with peak freshness, and those dealing with actual food safety. "Before taking a swig of milk, many Americans glance quickly at the date label and toss it away, without realizing that it still may be perfectly safe to consume," says Senator Richard Blumenthal, who's one of the sponsors. The USDA says 36 pounds of food are wasted per person in the U.S. every month, and the bill's backers argue too much is because of confusion about whether things have gone bad. This system just makes common sense, they say — it would help consumers save money on grocery bills, keep perfectly safe food from being chucked into the trash, and, should you not care about either of those, even increase the amount that can be donated to hungry people.

RELATED: Foods you didn't know you could freeze

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Congress suggests legitimate 'sell by' dates may curb food waste

Buttermilk

The only thing better than eating buttermilk pancakes in your pajamas is eating buttermilk pancakes in your pajamas without making a last-minute grocery store run. Freeze buttermilk in ice cube trays, then transfer to a resealable freezer bag. The cubes will last for 3 months.

Egg Whites

Homemade pudding and ice cream call for lots of yolks -- good thing you can freeze the orphaned whites for up to 12 months. Turn them into coconut macaroons, angel food cake or even marshmallows. For best results, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. Just keep in mind that frozen whites don't always whip up to a foam as well as fresh ones.

Lunchmeats

Brown-baggers, rejoice: Both unopened and opened packages of lunchmeat will keep for up to 2 months in the freezer.

Bread

You've probably frozen a loaf before, but did you realize you don't need to thaw it before eating it? Sliced sandwich bread is good for 3 months in the freezer, and revives quickly in the toaster -- making the freezer a better storage option than the fridge, which can dry bread out. Even a good baguette will last for 1 month in the freezer. Sprinkle it with a little water and bring it back to life in a warm oven.

Nuts

After 2 weeks at room temperature, the oils in some nuts can start to go bad. Freezing slows their decline. Just make sure you keep what you're planning to use immediately in the fridge; repeatedly opening and closing the bag in the freezer will introduce moisture and the potential for contamination.

Milk

Accidentally buy a carton right before you're about to go out of town? You can freeze milk for up to 3 months.

Whole-Wheat Flour

Just like nuts, whole-wheat flour contains oils that can go bad at room temperature. It'll keep in the freezer for up to 2 years.

Grains

Pantry staples like quinoa, farro and bulgur last for up to 3 months at room temperature, which is plenty of time for most people work through their supply. But if you have extra packages, sock them away in the freezer for up to 6 months.

Smoked Salmon

A vacuum-sealed package of salmon (or trout or mackerel) is good for 2 months in the freezer. And hey, so are bagels -- instant brunch for days!

Tofu

The texture will become much denser, but you can freeze tofu for up to 5 months to make smoothies or braises.

Half-and-Half

If you've got too much for your coffee, it'll be good for up to 4 months in the freezer. However, you can't say the same of heavy cream, which doesn't hold up well in freezing temps.

Tortillas

Yes, you can freeze them, so long as you let them thaw fully in the fridge (not the microwave) before using.

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