How many times have you opened up your refrigerator, pulled out some leftovers, and given them the old sniff test? Or maybe you just looked at the week old Chinese food, thought about how long it had been in there and then just tossed it. Well if you have done either of these things, you probably threw away food that was completely safe and still pretty tasty. Americans throw away 36 million tons of food every year, according to the EPA (2013). That is 230 pounds per person per year that is thrown into the garbage can. I think most people throw away food because they fear eating it will make them sick, but some of the facts surrounding foodborne illness may surprise you.
There are two major types of bacteria that affect food. Spoilage bacteria is responsible for the bad smells, discoloration, and gross texture. These are the things we look for when food goes “bad,” but according to the USDA “Most people would not choose to eat spoiled food. However, if they did, they probably would not get sick, “ (USDA, 2013). The type of bacteria that makes you sick is the pathogenic bacteria, and guess what? You cannot see, taste or smell if food has been infected by this type of bacteria. The two most common types of these bacteria are E. coli and Salmonella. These bacteria typically thrive between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (USDA, 2013), and they tend to make people sick when they are present in undercooked meats.
But what about mold you might ask? The majority of molds are completely benign and some are even beneficial. The USDA recommends tossing a lot of foods that have mold on them to err on the side of safety, but even the USDA affirms that cutting the mold off of hard cheeses and removing the mold from firm fruits and vegetables makes them perfectly fine to eat.
Most foodborne illness is caused by Norovirus (CDC, 2013). It accounted for 58% of foodborne illness in the US according to the CDC. This virus cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted, and the best way to protect yourself from it is by washing your hands, rinsing fruits and vegetables, and cleaning surfaces. It has almost nothing to do with eating left overs that may have gone bad. Additionally, according to the Oxford Journal 52% of these outbreaks were from restaurants, and you would most likely get sick from eating the contaminated food right away, not from eating the leftovers. Employees not washing their hands or restaurants not cleaning their counters very well is the source of many food borne illnesses, but most people don’t worry about going out to eat.
My intent is not that you become more scared about the food in your fridge or the menu items at your favorite restaurant. If we should be scared of anything we should be scared of our industrial food complex. Most people do not bat an eye at ordering their burger or steak medium rare, but that burger could contain hundreds of different cows from all over the world, and it is more likely to make you sick than your fridge leftovers. We should be scared of the trans-fat laden snacks that we are munching on as we study for exams. We should not be scared of the little bit of mold growing on the cheddar, or the wilted piece of lettuce in our mixed greens. We should not be scared of the delicious leftover vegetarian chili that has been in the fridge for a week or the pasta that you cooked for friends over the weekend. The science says that you are most likely going to be fine, and we should base our decisions on science and facts, not our ingrained phobias of old food.
I would like to add the disclaimer that pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems should be much more cautious with what they eat. Listeria is a significant concern for these populations, which is most often found in cold cuts and uncooked hot dogs. It can also be found on fruits and vegetables which is why it is important to wash them first.
We may have heard about the starving children somewhere in the world when we did not finish our food when we were kids. The food on our plate is not going to magically jump from our plates to their mouths, and this piece is not about convincing you to force down disgusting, rotten leftovers. It is all about trying to waste a little less and think before we throw food away. Maybe the best way to achieve this would be to buy smaller quantities of perishable goods in the first place and not let the leftovers get pushed into the abyss that is the back of the refrigerator. However, when 842 million people in the world do not get enough to eat and 3.1 million children under the age of 5 die from hunger every year (World Food Programme, 2013), it should give us a little pause before we chuck the perfectly good leftover burrito. I believe we can get that 230 pounds per person of food thrown away every year down a little bit, don’t you?