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App Details When Food Really Expires

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Photo:marktee/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Use By. Expired On. Best If Used By. Sell By. These date listings are ubiquitous on just about anything you're picking up at the store. Yet, despite the fact they mean all sorts of different things, many people use them as a written-in-stone date for when an item must be thrown away.

Seeing as half of the world's food gets thrown away, this is a problem. And it's one the USDA's new FoodKeeper app is trying to tackle.

The app -- available on Android and Apple devices -- was developed by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service in conjunction with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute. It allows users to plug in the type of food they purchase and receive information about how it'll be stored. The app details how long you have until it actually goes bad. (To read more about how the app works and to see what it looks like, read this story by Linda Ly.) I spoke to Chris Bernstein, the lead at the USDA's Food Safety Education team, about the project's genesis as well as the problem with expiration dates on food.

Where did the idea come from?

Chris Bernstein: We've had this data for quite awhile. We'd previously worked on a publication called "The FoodKeeper Brochure," and last year the data was completely revamped. We thought, "We have all of this fresh new data that's completely reliable, it's 2014, why don't we make it more useful instead of just having a brochure that people have to order?" For the last 15-18 months, we've been figuring out how to make the data more user-friendly for mobile phones and tablets. What we eventually settled on is the application.

How does this work better than the brochure?

Bernstein: The app allows people to search all the items within the brochure, and you get timelines for storage in the pantry, in the fridge, in the freezer, depending on the nature of the project. We also built in a calendar integration feature which allows the user to say I just bought a bag of rice, I'm storing it in the pantry, and it puts a notification on your calendar for down the road to say, hey, make sure you finish this bag of rice that you bought. We also have a question and answer system called "Ask Karen," a database of questions we've developed over the year. So if consumers have questions or a product isn't in the database, they can "Ask Karen," or email us to say, like, include tahini, which is actually something we're going to put [into the app] next week.

What are some other updates you have planned?

Bernstein: We are putting out an update next week that's just going to clarify some data. We've noticed some weird things. In the frozen lobster section, for instance, we say freezing is not recommended, which is just something we missed. So the update is going to address some of those issues. Throughout the year there will be developmental updates to the database. We should be pushing out two more updates through September.

Why do you think people have such a difficult time understanding expiration dates?

Bernstein: The only food item required by law to have a date is baby food. Babies have immune systems that haven't been developed yet. They're at high risk for food-borne illnesses, so that's why baby food has one. Other than that, no food is required to have those dates on them. Those dates, and what they're even called, are usually put on by the manufacturer because they want to tell you, look, we want you to eat our Pop-Tarts. But if you eat the Pop-Tarts you bought now 10 years down the line, they're not going to taste how we want them to taste. So we're going to put this date on the box to tell you if you eat our Pop-Tarts within six months, they will taste exactly how they're supposed to and we'll proudly stand behind that product. If you eat it after that, they won't taste that good. But they're not regulated, there's no standard. If you have a product with a "Sell By" date, it could be safe after, but consumers just assume that's a hard and fast date and toss stuff.

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