It’s a perennial kitchen question: Can I eat it? If you accidentally left bacon out on the counter overnight, or your fridge suddenly broke, or you’ve been stuck in traffic with a birthday cake for hours, a new app will tell you if that food is safe to eat and you can save it from the trash. The app also sends reminders when groceries are about to expire.
The app, called Foodkeeper, is an updated version of a long food safety brochure developed by the USDA with Cornell University and the nonprofit Food Marketing Institute. “We thought, why not make it a little more interactive?” says Chris Bernstein, team lead for food safety education at USDA.
After a trip to the grocery store, someone can enter some items in the app, which automatically calculates how long they’ll last, and then sends a notification so you have time to use it before it goes bad.
“I use it for items I’m not going to use right away–something that’s going to sit around in my pantry for a while or some produce I might forget to use,” Bernstein says. “Say I bought flour, which is usually good for 1.5 to 2 years. I can guarantee in 1.5 years, I’m not going to remember when I bought that flour.”
The app also answers questions whenever someone’s worried that they’ve mishandled food. Bernstein used it on a recent drive from D.C. to Buffalo, New York, after getting stuck in a snowstorm for 12 hours with his snack, a bag of grapes. He popped open the app, which told him grapes could be unrefrigerated for 24 hours.
“It saved me money, because I would have just thrown that food away,” Bernstein says. “Instead, we ate that for breakfast and didn’t have to go out.”
The app’s larger goal is to help chip away at the country’s giant consumer food waste problem. Americans throw out about 25% of the food they buy, with average families spending as much as $2,275 a year on food that ends up in landfills.
“Our hope is that by providing an application that can really educate consumers about the safety and quality of food and appropriate timetables, they’ll be able to purchase more appropriate quantities, instead of purchasing huge quantities of stuff that may go bad,” Bernstein says. “With the notifications on the calendar, it will also remind folks to use those products that may be approaching the end of their lifespan, so we can really reduce food waste as a whole.”
The app also helps circumvent unhelpful food labeling. “We get questions about best by, sell by, use by–there are so many terms that organizations put on food, and it’s not always clear what they mean,” says Bernstein. “Often consumers think the sell by date means the food should be tossed by that date, when that isn’t for consumers at all. Even some foods with dates for consumers can be used after that date–and that’s what we hope they learn with this app.”