Isn’t saltpetre bad enough? Expired school food sent to prisons in Mass

Potassium nitrate has a rich history, in mythology and as the primary component of tree stump remover.

Also known as saltpetre, any prisoner in Canada in the early 1980s would swear it was added to food to induce impotence and, according to wiki, is still falsely rumored to be in institutional food (such as military fare) as an anaphrodisiac. But there is no scientific evidence for such claims.

Who needs science, this is control of sex drive.

The Boston Globe reported today that the state Department of Education recently donated thousands of cases of out-of-date food from the school lunch program to state prisons and a county jail.

The food — more than 11,000 cases of cheese, blueberries, frozen chicken, and other goods — was offered free of charge to kitchens that serve inmates, as education officials removed old products from warehouses that serve schools across Massachusetts. The state had been reviewing its inventory after controversy erupted last month when expired food was discovered in Boston school cafeterias.

The donations to prison facilities, shown in documents obtained by the Globe under the state’s public records law, underscore the breadth of the problem with out-of-date food in the federal school lunch program.

Prison officials defended their cafeterias, while an inmate advocate shuddered at the notion that food unfit for children could be served in jail.

For those who want to know, saltpetre, a primary component of fertilizer, has been a common ingredient of salted meat since the Middle Ages, but its use has been mostly discontinued due to inconsistent results compared to more modern nitrate and nitrite compounds. Even so, saltpetre is still used in some food applications, such as charcuterie and the brine used to make corned beef.

I hate corned beef.

Food destined for dump sickens 100 in S.Africa squatter camp

There’s a reason expired and recalled food is supposed to be dumped in a secure manner.

Associated Press reports cookies, candies, jams and juice destined for a dump instead went to Themba Mgodla as payment for loading a truck. Only some of the goods he planned to sell in his squatter camp turned out to be a decade old, sickening more than 100 people.

Desperate for work, Mgodla said he had gone to a factory food shop seeking employment. A driver there was supposed to take the food items to a dump, but offered to let Mgodla have the load in exchange for helping put it on a truck.

He planned to sell the food, not knowing that some of the expiration dates went as far back as 2000. Once he got to his squatter camp, some of his hungry neighbors snatched goods from him.

Surplus groceries sold at auctions

Half-price cream cheese? And the brand name, no less! I saw they were getting close to their expiration dates, but I bought three, anyway. They’ll keep just fine in the freezer until I’m ready to bake another pumpkin cheesecake.

Lots of shoppers buy groceries with this money-saving mentality, which has opened the market for expired food sold at discounts. It has also sparked an increase in grocery auctions for the sale of damaged, dented or surplus foodstuffs that are often close to passing their expiration dates.

At Big Harry’s Auction in New Jersey, regular runs to regional food distribution centers and a wholesale food auction provide an ever-changing variety of food items for the public to bid on.

"And while Big Harry’s is subject to health department inspections and offers a money-back guarantee on food purchases," writes an Asbury Park Press staff writer, "buying frozen food at auction requires something of a leap of faith. [Auction operator Vince] Iacono says he’d never sell perishable frozen food that was thawed and then refrozen, which can cause spoilage, but all he can do is trust that his haulers will abide by the same policy."

That’s true for all food businesses: they have to rely on everyone before them in the farm-to-fork food chain to handle products as safely as they do. It’s always important to know your suppliers.

Emirates chef fined $27,000 for expired (by 1 day) yoghurt

Before the widespread use of refrigeration, fresh milk was often fermented into yoghurt, chesse and other dairy products for long-term storage.

So in what seems an excessively harsh penalty, if true, a British chef at a restaurant in the Emirates Palace hotel is appealing his U.S. $27,000 fine after inspectors from Abu Dhabi Municipality found the yoghurt during a routine visit to the kitchen of the Etoiles restaurant and lounge about a month ago. ??????

The head chef, identified as PH, was convicted and ordered to pay Dh70,000 for not educating his staff on the emirate’s food expiration laws and Dh20,000 for storing expired food. He also had to pay another Dh2,000 for the municipality’s fees.

PH appealed the court sentence in the past few weeks, and the case was referred to the Criminal Court of Appeal, where it was heard yesterday. ??????His attorney said the food was only one day past its use-by date; court documents do not specify when the food expired.

Stick a thermometer in cheap, stinky meat

The quest for discounted groceries has hit the news again with South Carolina news reporter Larry Collins asking,

“Stores slash prices about 50% – 60% on meat when it is nearing the date on the packaging. But, is that food safe to eat?”

According to registered dietitian Charlotte Caperton-Kilburn, such meat is typically safe to consume as long as you cook or freeze it as soon as you bring it home… and it smells okay.

“If the meat smells even remotely strange it should be returned to the store or thrown away,” Caperton-Kilburn told the news station.

In Ireland, Darina Allen wrote in an opinion piece for the Irish Examiner that, just the other night, she found a vac-packed duck in the back of her fridge that smelled “good and high.” Rather than throw it out, she “gave it a good wash inside and out and rubbed a bit of salt into the skin and roasted it.”

Her guests said it was delicious.

Allen reminisced about life before modern conveniences like electric refrigeration and explained, “We learned from our mothers how to judge with our senses whether food was safe.” She asserted that, “in just a few years, many people have lost the ability to judge for themselves when food is safe to eat.”

While most groceries sold in the US have a date consumers can read and use, the USDA only requires manufacturers of infant formula and baby food to determine and display a “Use by” date on their products—and this is mainly for the sake of ensuring nutrient quality. The others are voluntary and only describe when the food will probably taste best. Assessing safety is still up to the consumer.

Modern technologies like stamped dates and color-changing barcodes can help consumers with that assessment, as can the senses of sight and smell. The most reliable safeguard, though, is cooking to a temperature that studies have found will effectively kill pathogens. For poultry, this is 165F.

Chefs may tell you to use your senses to figure temperature, too, but only by using a tip-sensitive digital thermometer can you know for sure.  It’s the consumer’s choice, as always, but I’d rather be sure than be positive for salmonella.

Expiration dates mean quality, not safety

The local grocery store where I earned minimum wage in my high school days closed down after I went off to college because it could no longer afford to compete with the Wal-Mart Supercenter in the next town.

I suppose confining the sale of expired goods to a single grocery cart at the front of the store really limited our earning potential.

Likewise, confining my ideas on the safety of out-of-date food to simple assumptions really limited my family’s money-saving potential. In my naivety, I assumed that dates on food referred to how long they were safe to eat.

This is not true.

Most dates provided by manufacturers on packages of food are just an indication of when the quality of the item will start to decline and—in the majority of cases—foods will remain safe past the date given.

This is why people are comfortable buying expired foods at discounted prices from online sellers in the UK and local groceries in Pennsylvania.

Many food safety authorities feel that pregnant women should be more careful than these buyers, though. Agencies in Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, each tell pregnant women to avoid food past their ‘use by’ dates protect themselves and their babies from harm.

I am certainly not the foremost authority on the diet of a pregnant woman. But in the words of my new favorite USDA FSIS fact sheet,

“‘Use-by’ dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates.”

Expiration dates don’t really mean much

While working at the hometown grocery store in high school, I spent one summer cleaning the shelves. As I removed and dusted each item and shelf, I would put the goods I found had expired in a grocery cart up front for half off.

That cart cleared out about as fast as I could fill it.

Even at that time (pre-Food Science degree and Barfblogger status), the huge demand for those products baffled me. Weren’t the dates there for a reason: to protect consumers from bad product?

The FDA says,

“Selling food past the expiration date [on most products] is not a violation of FDA’s regulations or law.”


“When storage conditions have been optimal, many foods are acceptable in terms of taste and other quality characteristics for periods of time beyond the expiration date printed on the label, and also are safe to eat.”

Shoppers at the local grocery told me they were never afraid of getting sick. They said some things had less flavor or color, but the savings was always worth the sacrifice.

A USDA FSIS fact sheet explains,

“Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations.”


“…even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality — if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below.”

So, wait… what is the purpose of providing expiration dates? Perhaps they only serve to make good food affordable in tough economic times.

The UK Telegraph reported recently that online retailer Approved Food is doing big business with the expired cart idea.

As the self-proclaimed “BIGGEST online sellers of clearance, short-dated and out-of-date food & drink” in the UK, Approved Food can’t even keep up with their demand.

A notice on Approved Food’s website today said,

“We currently have a 7-day backlog of orders that are to be processed… We strongly recommend that you place your order next week when we will have more items [for sale]."