THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

When bad things happen to good food

You toss it out. But if the people you share a refrigerator with say you worry too much, they are right. Dates on food are guidelines more than deadlines.

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / April 13, 2011

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Boston City Councilor John R. Connolly set off an uproar last month when he went into public school kitchens and snapped photos of frozen meat and cheese dated as far back as 2009. Food past the stamped expiration date packs an emotional punch, and not just when schoolchildren are involved.

“My husband constantly thinks I’m trying to poison him,’’ Amy Masters Ribner, of Newton, a “Chronicle’’ producer, says of Josh Ribner. “He’s like the food police. He’ll go through the fridge asking, ‘How old is this? How old is this?’ This is a man who thinks Coke is a food group, yet he’s afraid to be poisoned by mustard. How bad can a condiment be?’’

Who even knows? Nobody, really. A study by ShelfLifeAdvice.com and Harris Interactive concluded that more than three-quarters of US consumers mistakenly believe certain foods are unsafe to eat after the expiration date has passed. “The dates on food packages are very conservative,’’ Joe Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell University, and a member of the website’s scientific advisory board, said when the survey was released last year. “If the product was stored properly, it should last well beyond the date on the package.’’

Even if the FDA and the USDA also say food can be safe beyond the expiration date if storage conditions are optimal, there is enough wiggle room to give ammunition to both sides — the uptight and the lax. With frightening stories about food-borne illnesses common, and the lousy economy making wasting food even more painful, it’s no wonder those tiny printed dates have the power to pit people against friends, family, even themselves.

In Jamaica Plain, Carly Burton, director of public policy and political affairs for a Boston nonprofit organization, says her wife, an associ ate scientist at a biotech company, takes a “unique’’ approach to expiration dates: She follows them. What’s a reasonable date-ignorer like Burton to do? While she’s never secretly changed a date or blacked one out with a marker, she has, she admits, cooked food that is recently expired and served it to her beloved, Melissa Berman.

Sometimes she worries she might sicken her spouse, but Burton’s behavior is not her fault. It’s what she was taught. “I grew up in a household where the expiration date had a meaning, but . . . ’’

At that point, Berman steps forward to set the record straight about her mother-in-law: “She has a blatant disregard for expiration dates.’’

When it is suggested that ignoring expiration dates may be hereditary, Berman is quick with her response: “What’s hereditary is the ability to survive expired food.’’

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that each year roughly one out of six Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from food-borne diseases. Alas, the CDC does not have statistics showing how many of those problems stemmed from food that people such as Melissa Berman or Josh Ribner might have thrown away.

So here is a question to ask yourself next time you open your refrigerator: How much is your life worth? Yanni Poulakos, of Boston, essentially valued his somewhere between $2 and $12. As he shopped at Trader Joe’s in Brookline recently, he said he would throw away a $2 bag of chips that was past its expiration date, but with something pricier, a $12 wedge of cheese, say, he might go beyond the date. “I might be willing to sacrifice.’’

Many people hold positions so hardened that if you ask them where they stand on the issue, they answer not with their own opinion, but with a horror story about a foe. Holly Longendyke, a speech therapist shopping at Trader Joe’s recently, is typical. “My mother-in-law will put things in her freezer for God knows how long,’’ she says, happily settling in for a long discussion of the topic. “She has a roast in her freezer from February 2010 and she’s still debating whether to cook it.’’

A USDA-funded study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that US households throw away 14 percent of their food purchases. The state Department of Education tried to avoid that waste by donating thousands of cases of out-of-date food from the school lunch program to state prisons and a county jail, reported Tuesday’s Globe. A prisoner advocate was quoted as saying, “I think it’s disgusting.’’

The founder of ShelfLifeAdvice.com, Ethel Tiersky, of Lincolnwood, Ill., used to waste a lot of food. Her website offers information from scientists, universities, and government agencies. It grew out of an article Tiersky was writing in an attempt to prove her husband — and his casual approach to expiration dates — wrong. But her research changed her mind. Thinking back on all the food she needlessly tossed for decades, Tiersky says, “I feel kind of foolish.’’

Since it launched in January 2010, the site has gotten 240,000 visitors, and, in her new role of guru, Tiersky hears firsthand the public’s obsession with the issue. She can barely answer her phone without fielding a question or hearing a confession.

“A friend who was in Florida for the winter came home and found some unopened yogurt from October in her refrigerator,’’ Tiersky says. “She ate it, and called me a few days later to say she was still alive and well.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.

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