Once you realize that about 40 percent of the food you bring home probably ends up wasted, you start to look for all the help you can get to stop throwing away food and money.

There are many tools at your disposal in the ongoing fight against food waste. For me, one of the best tools is a recipe that helps create a new dish out of leftovers like chicken breasts or spaghetti. Other tools include creative products like FreshPaper — which extends the life of fresh produce — knowledge about reducing your household food waste before it starts, and websites like Still Tasty that help consumers look past the arbitrary “use by” dates that are stamped on foods.

The USDA released another tool to fight food waste this week: the FoodKeeper app. Its purpose is to inform users on "how to store food and beverages to maximize their freshness and quality" and offers the following features:

  • Specific product pages for more than 400 items. These offer users storage timelines for the refrigerator, freezer and pantry.
  • Cooking tips for meat, poultry, seafood and egg products to ensure users prepare these products in ways that eliminate foodborne bacteria.
  • Calendar integration, which allows users to enter the purchase date for products and offers notifications when products are nearing the end of their recommended storage date.
  • Users can search the application with swipe gestures or voice control.
  • If a user doesn't find specific information about a product, he or she can submit a question to the USDA using the "Ask Karen" virtual representative feature of the application. The system provides information about preventing foodborne illness and safe food handling, storage and preparation of meat, poultry and egg products.
  • The application is available for Android and Apple devices.
I downloaded the app to take a look at its features and its recommendations, and I found a lot of it unclear, such as the advice on bottled barbecue sauce. The app says that “For freshness and quality, this item should be consumed within: 12 months if in the pantry, 4 months if refrigerated.” It doesn’t say, “if refrigerated after opening.” Although I assume that’s what it means, it’s unclear. I don’t think an app that is trying to help end confusion over how long foods can safely be consumed should make you rely on assumptions.

Fresh dairy is even more confusing. For buttermilk the recommendation “For freshness and quality, this item should be consumed within: 1-2 weeks if refrigerated, 3 months if frozen” leaves me with questions. Is it 1-2 weeks after opening that it’s still good if refrigerated or 1-2 weeks after the “best by” date on the container if it’s refrigerated?

For rice, the advice is that it can be “1 year in the pantry after opening and 6 months if refrigerated after opening.” Why is that? Don’t most foods last longer in the refrigerator? Is it the moisture that would make rice go bad faster? I find this type of advice incomplete.

When I used the "Ask Karen" feature to find out about sour cream safety, I was offered one general article on dairy safety, one article about ice cream and four articles about eggs.

The calendar integration feature works, but almost seems as arbitrary as “use by” dates to me. If you buy fresh spinach from the farmers market that was just picked that morning or fresh spinach from the grocery store that’s days old, their life expectancy for freshness is different. And, although the app says the freshness for spinach could be 3-7 days, the calendar integration feature sets it at just three days. 

The USDA has made food waste a priority in the past couple years by doing things like issuing food waste challenges and releasing a report with sobering statistics about wasted food by retailers and consumers. The FoodKeeper app is another way the USDA is trying to address this real problem, but I don’t think this tool is useful. The advice is confusing and incomplete and will likely leave consumers unsure and throwing away some foods before needed.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

USDA FoodKeeper app intended to fight food waste, but it may just cause confusion
The new, free app has plenty of features, but it also has plenty of unclear recommendations.