How exact are the rules about throwing away food that has been left out?

Asked October 14, 2014, 9:25 AM EDT

How exact are the rules about throwing away food that has been left out of the recommended temperature range? If leftovers are not refrigerated for 2 1/2 instead of 2 hours, we throw them out. Prepackaged lettuce is thrown out if it is a day past the expiration date. We are feeling guilty about the amount of food we waste when there is so much hunger in the world. We do our best to be vigilant and not wasteful, but too often a hectic schedule gets in the way. Also, some of our friends say that foods such as salad dressings that are refrigerated can remain opened in the refrigerator until their Use By date even if it is months later. Is that right?

McMinn County Tennessee

1 Response

You are right, it is not easy to know when foods 'go bad'. One of the things that makes it difficult is that there are so many foods that people buy and use, as well as knowing the conditions those foods experienced from the time they are grown, harvested and produced to the time in which you bought, stored, and opened them.

Because of all of this uncertainty, we follow rules that are most likely to ensure the safety and quality of that product. But there is some common sense that can be applied by the consumer when evaluating food items for risk to the quality and safety of that product..

For manufactured products, such as your bagged lettuce, this shelf-life on the bag is one that the packer has determined to ensure the quality of the product, as well as the safety. Will it last beyond the date on the bag...it may. Will the opened salad dressing last for months, it may. But it may not depending of how it was handled each time it was removed from the refrigerator.

Not knowing the particular salad dressing, I would guess that it has a preservative in there. That preservative will protect the product for some time, however, if yeast or mold enter that bottle, perhaps during handling of that product as it is being poured or being left open on the table during dinner, this contamination event may overload the preservative system and result in faster spoilage.

As you can imagine, we get questions like this all of the time, and without being able to do evaluations of that product, either through testing or by analyzing how the product has been handled from the time it was made, opened, refrigerated, used, etc, , it can be very difficult to answer. Because of that, we generally stick with the general rules for food safety.

And while I realize it is hard to keep track of foods you have in terms of when to throw it out, it is better to manage it based upon those rules, in that way you will use products at their best quality, rather than trying to make guesses as to whether a product is safe or not, or will have acceptable quality. So to address this, especially considering sustainability, consumers have responsibility for policing what foods they have in their refrigerator or on the shelf, and using it in a timely fashion so that we do not need to get to the point where that decision must be made where there is a higher probability of risk and thus having to throw it out.

Thank you for your thoughtful question. Please let me know if you have further questions.