Murphy: The New ‘Sniff Test’

"The sniff test" is used by most people, even if there's a "best if used by" label. ( Freeimages.com )

The pull dates that appear on perishable foods (meat and milk, primarily) have long been a staple of stand-up comedy.

Jerry Seinfeld, for example, has a whole routine about the “Use-By” dates stamped on milk cartons, asking, “How do they know that’s the exact date when the milk goes bad? Do the cows give them a hint?” and drawing laughs by imagining the terror it instills in someone daring to drink the milk after the expiration date.

Truth is, most consumers don’t understand the difference between any of the phrases that appear on meat, dairy and other perishable food products, nor do they realize — like Seinfeld — that most product dating doesn’t convey food-safety information.

For example, according to USDA:

  • “Sell-By” dates are not intended as a safety date; they’re used for retail inventory control
  • “Use-By” is also not a safety date; it is intended to indicate the last date to expect peak quality
  • “Best If Used By” also not a safety date; it alerts consumers how long the product will maintain the best flavor or quality

A few states require actual expiration dates on certain perishables, but consumer research has shown that the best phrasing to alert the pubic to the possibility of spoilage is the “Best If Used By” labeling.

The Ultimate Test
Of course, the alternative to simply conducting a sniff test of suspect foods that have been in the fridge past whatever date appears on the packaging is the use of a device that does the sniffing for you.

One such product is the FOODsniffer, a device about the size of a TV remote, available in several designer colors (to match your kitchen décor?) and is available online for only $129.99 (shipping not included).

The device uses chemical sensors that detect molecular decomposition in meat or fish by measuring the presence of volatile compounds given off as raw food deteriorates. You point, you click, and the information is sent to your smartphone.

No matter what the app says, you then look at the piece of meat, see if it’s really brown, or only slightly brown, remember that you paid $8 a pound for it, peel back the packaging film and smell it yourself.

Despite what the fancy FOODsniffer data indicated, if it looks okay, and it doesn’t smell all that bad, you’re probably cooking it — figuring that whatever nasty bugs are breeding in or on it will be roasted once it’s on the grill, anyway.

That’s not likely to be the case in China, however.

Given the relative dearth of food safety regulations (and enforcement), coupled with the fact that simply throwing out post-date products is far less of an option, an electronic food sniffer just introduced may be a big seller.

According to the China Daily news service, researchers at China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. have developed a gadget designed to check the freshness of meat.

“You open the device and open an application on your mobile phone and then place the device very close to the meat for about 10 seconds,” Niu Ye, an engineer at the institute working on the product, was quoted in the story.

The meat sniffer detects the level of bacteriological activity, judges the meat’s freshness and displays the data on the phone.

Sounds great — except for one glitch.

It’s only 80% to 90% accurate, and that could be a problem, since as many as one out of every five pieces of meat could register a false negative, leading to potentially serious food-safety issues.

Niu Ye told China Daily that those percentages “will be improved in future versions of the hardware and the app.”

Great. Let me know when version 2.0 is available, but until then …

I’ll still conduct the original smell test, along with the complementary eye test.

So far, that method’s been 100% accurate in my experience — as long as the meat is carefully handled, all utensils are properly sanitized and the item is thoroughly cooked to the recommended internal temperature to ensure food safety, that is.

Which, if you’re that conscientious, you’re probably not letting $25 bucks’ worth of beef sit in your refrigerator to spoil, anyway.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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