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Celebrate Earth Day, stop wasting food with FoodKeeper

Conservation and waste reduction have been associated with April 22 since the first Earth Day in 1970, with many marking the annual celebration of the third rock by planting trees.

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For Earth Day 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is putting a food safety spin on traditional themes, planting ideas with consumers who seek fewer illnesses, less food waste and lower utility bills.

A cornerstone of the USDA’s efforts is the FoodKeeper application, launched in April 2015. Available for Apple and Android devices, the app has been upgraded to allow users to ask questions and make suggestions about content. Additional enhancements are scheduled for rollout in May and August.

“By helping users understand how items should be stored in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, the application empowers consumers to choose storage methods that extend the shelf life of their items,” according to USDA’s Earth Day campaign.

The app includes information about more than 400 foods and beverages, including baby food, dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, produce and seafood. Cooking advice is also offered to ensure users prepare products in ways that eliminate foodborne bacteria.

As with Earth Day, the FoodKeeper app seeks to raise awareness to decrease waste and conserve resources, including consumers’ household budgets and tax bills. Food waste, for example, has much broader consequences than causing friction between parents and children who are picky eaters.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that 133 billion pounds of food in the available food supply goes uneaten each year. The estimated value is $161 billion, using retail prices.

“Simple actions such as cleaning your oven, allowing your refrigerator to properly circulate air, and downloading the free FoodKeeper app can help you reduce your risk of foodborne illness, your impact on the environment, and the cost of your bills,” according to recommendations from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

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New truth in old joke: Is your refrigerator running?
Other tips from the FSIS include simple steps to maximize refrigerator function to keep food safe and fresh while using the least energy possible.

Keeping items below 40 ˚F reduces the growth of illness causing pathogens, but if your refrigerator is over packed, it can cause problems for both your health and your wallet.

If air cannot properly circulate, some storage zones may not be keeping proper temperature. That can allow pathogens such as Salmonella to grow and cause a refrigerator’s motor to run constantly, increasing utility bills and wasting energy.

Don’t stack foods tightly or cover refrigerator shelves with any material that prevents air circulation from quickly and evenly cooling stored items. Leave at least an inch on all sides of items for cold air to circulate around them, and be sure not to block air vents,” the FSIS recommends.

To check the temperature in a refrigerator, place an appliance thermometer at its warmest location, generally the middle of the door, and wait five to eight hours. If the temperature is above 40 °F, adjust the temperature control down. Check again after five to eight hours, and repeat as necessary until your refrigerator is at a safe temperature.

Air circulation is also crucial for proper operation of a refrigerator’s condenser. The nature of kitchens — high traffic areas with dust, humidity and oily residues — means regular cleaning of refrigerators’ front grills is a must.

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These screen shots from the FoodKeeper app show the range of foods included in the database.

More practical info, recall alerts coming with FoodKeeper upgrades
More than 100,000 people have downloaded the FoodKeeper app, according to DMI, the Bethesda, MD, technology firm that developed it for the USDA. User feedback is shaping the next generations of the app.

“Earth Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon and reconsider our global footprint. One way we can do this is to become more aware of food waste and foodborne illness,” DMI founder and CEO Jay Sunny Bajaj said in an Earth Day news release.

“We are extremely pleased to continue our work with the USDA to enhance the FoodKeeper App, delivering food-handling procedures through enhanced public education and outreach.”

Planned FoodKeeper enhancements include:

  • Hotline access will allows users to directly call USDA’s Meat and Poultry hotline or submit a question.
  • Multi-lingual support will provide a Spanish version of the app.
  • Display measurements will be available for viewing in Imperial or Metric formats.
  • More in-depth information about various food safety topics, including details on proper cooking methods.
  • Educational alerts and food recall push notifications options.
  • Easy access to educational videos that can play within the app.

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