Care for a glass of year-old orange juice? How about some pre-washed, bagged spinach picked almost two weeks ago? A five-month-old apple? Month-old meat? If, like most folks, you buy your produce and food at grocery stores, that’s probably what you’re getting.
Choice, an Australian consumer-interest organization, recently published the results of a study revealing that many of the foods Australians purchase are hardly fresh even though legally what’s being sold can be described as such. “Technological advances mean the lamb chops that look so succulent could have been butchered four months ago, and those shiny red apples might have been in storage for more than a year,” according to the group. The thing is – and you knew this was coming – it really isn’t that different here in the U.S., either.
If you’ve ever bought an apple and brought it home only to discover it was kinda mealy, technically, you didn’t buy a bad apple, you bought an old apple. Using refrigeration and a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene, apples can be picked before they’re ripe and then stored for months on end before they see the light of your supermarket produce aisle. Is 1-methylcyclopropene safe? Yes. Is your apple fresh? If you’re buying American-grown, hard winter apples such as Granny Smith in – say – July, you’re eating an apple that was picked several months before. Is that really fresh? And what about that old morning standby, orange juice?
That refreshing glass of sunshine made from juice concentrate has more than just its flavor and bright color going for it: it’s potentially a year old, too. Last year, Canadian author Allissa Hamilton revealed one of the lesser known secrets of the orange juice biz when she published Squeezed: What You Don’t Know about Orange Juice.
“In the process of pasteurizing, [orange] juice is heated and stripped of oxygen, a process called deaeration, so it doesn’t oxidize,” Hamilton told Boston.com last year. “Then it’s put in huge storage tanks where it can be kept for upwards of a year.”
What’s being stored doesn’t really taste like orange juice anymore, Hamilton explained, so when it’s time to drain the tank and package the juice, flavor specialists are hired to reconstruct the flavor using “flavor packs” derived from orange essence and oils.
“Flavor companies break down the essence and oils into individual chemicals and recombine them,” she added. Feeling smug because you never buy your juice in concentrate form? The fluid stuff isn’t much better, as it happens.
And what about those lovely, pink steaks you purchased for the weekend? Meat packed in carbon monoxide and then wrapped tightly in plastic a week later looks just as good as a similar piece that just hit the shelves. Carbon monoxide – even though the Food and Drug Administration generally regards it as safe – wasn’t such a big hit with consumers when news media got wind of the practice in 2007 and now meat producers are on constant lookout for the next big thing that will keep meat looking fresh even when it isn’t. Ideally, the sell-by date should be a good clue and it generally is, but meat-producers aren’t legally required to post a sell-by on their products.
In truth, much of this happens because so much of our food is produced far from where we live. On average, according to many estimates, our dinner travels about 1,500 miles from its source – a factory farm in the Midwest perhaps? – to your dinner table in the burbs of Cleveland. By the time it finally shows up on the grocery shelves, it’s several days old all ready, assuming it’s not produce that’s been held for several months on top of that.
Choice, and American groups like San Francisco’s Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, recommend doing as much of your shopping as possible from farmers’ markets and smaller, local businesses like butcher shops and produce stores where the emphasis is on fresh, locally produced food.
Unless, of course, you prefer aged orange juice. After all, it works for wine, right?