If you haven’t been to the grocery store lately, you may not know that shopping has become a thoroughly unpleasant experience. From the social distancing rules to the long lines to the semi-bare shelves (usually of the exact items you’re looking for), most of us these days want to endure the ordeal as infrequently as possible.
So BILLSHARK wants you think twice about throwing out food products if you don’t have to, because that will cut down on the trips you have to make.
And if you need further convincing, how about this: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April saw the biggest monthly increase in grocery prices in nearly 50 years, and the single-month increase for cereal and bakery products was the highest since 1919.
Why the surge?
Food prices are going up for the same reasons we’re experiencing shortages on shelves.
First, the shift from eating out to eating at home has disrupted the supply chain. Until the coronavirus hit, approximately 50 percent of Americans ate their meals at school, at work, or at restaurants.
The supply chain was set up for that, and when things changed literally overnight, it wasn’t prepared to meet the sudden at-home cleaning/eating/bathroom need. Food and toilet paper used outside the home is usually produced in industrial-sized containers that stores don’t have room to stock and the public won’t buy, like 20-gallon tubs of mayonnaise or giant wheels of single-ply TP.
Second, the entire food supply chain has been impacted, from workers at meat packing plants to truckers to grocery store workers either falling ill, being quarantined, or fearful of coming to work. In addition, farmers can’t get enough workers to harvest their crops, so they’re letting their crops rot in the field, slaughtering their livestock, and dumping their milk.
And finally, the panic buying we’ve seen for everything from pasta to toilet paper has driven up prices. It’s the classic supply-and-demand equation.
Some examples of price increases last month:
- eggs—+16.1 percent
- milk—+1.5 percent
- canned soup—+2.6 percent
- beef—+3.3 percent
- chicken—+5.8 percent
- pork—+3 percent
- canned vegetables—+3.6 percent
Why you can ignore expiration dates
In the midst of all this, one way to save money on food is to ignore expiration dates. If that thought makes you nervous, let us explain why they mean nothing about the safety of the food contained in the package.
The confusion around expiration dates on food packaging stems from the wording used by manufacturers to indicate freshness. In the 1970s, producers of boxed, canned, and frozen foods responded to consumer demand by placing a stamp on their products representing their best guess as to when the contents would be at their peak. There was no government regulation driving this move, so companies have employed as many as a dozen different wordings to convey this information.
Three years ago, two of the largest grocery industry trade groups announced plans to standardize these phrases to two: “Use by” and “Best if used by.” But this hasn’t helped many consumers, who still question the quality of the food if it’s past a date stamped on the package.
A classic example is the “use by” date on egg cartons; food safety experts say the eggs can be eaten safely for three to five weeks after that date. (To test it, float it in a bowl of water. If the egg stays on the bottom, it’s fresh. If it stands upright, use it soon. If it floats, toss it.)
Milk is another example: The industry says milk will be fine up to a week after the “sell by” or “best by” date on the carton.
Canned goods won’t last forever, but those with a high-acid content such as tomatoes and citrus fruits are still good for up to 1 ½ years past their “best by” date, while low-acid canned products (meat, vegetables, fish, etc.) will last for up to five years.
The only food product label that is regulated by the government is infant formula, which testing has shown begins to lose some of its nutrient value after the “use-by” date. (Baby food prices rose 2.7 percent in April).
So how can you tell whether a product past its stamped date is safe to eat? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says: “Spoiled foods will develop an off-odor, flavor, or texture, and should not be eaten.”
Also look for:
- mold on bread, meats, vegetables or dairy products
- slime on cheese, cold cuts, or meat
- bulging, rusted, or leaking cans
- discoloration of fruits and vegetables
One sign to disregard is the darkening of raw meat, which changes color when exposed to air. This doesn’t mean the meat has gone bad. Use the sniff test to tell for sure.
Foods you’ve already prepared, however, should be kept refrigerated no longer than four days, according to the USDA.
The bottom line: These days, few of us can afford to waste food unnecessarily, so feel free to ignore expiration dates.
And if you’re looking for another way to save money, be sure to let BILLSHARK review your bills for free. We’ve been able to save people hundreds of dollars on their wireless, Internet, pay TV, and satellite radio bills.