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13 February 2019updated 30 Jun 2021 11:49am

Why it’s fine for the Prime Minister to scrape mould off jam and then eat it

Theresa May is right about sell-by dates – but she needs to admit that she just doesn't like jam.

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May has caused uproar after telling the Cabinet that she cuts out the mould and keeps the jam underneath in her own kitchen. (The remarks were made during a discussion about how to cut down on food waste, rather than being a non sequitur in response to the latest row about the Brexit crisis.) The Prime Minister also let it be known that sell by dates are largely artificial, and that people should exercise discretion rather than just throw away perfectly edible food.

As far as sell-by dates are concerned, May is absolutely correct: most sell-by dates are essentially plucked from the ether and result in a lot of unnecessary food wastage. But what about the mould?

Well, it’s complicated. In general, it’s not wise to ignore the presence of mould in most foods as it is merely an outward expression of microbial growth inside. The same sickness-inducing organisms causing your leftover stew to get hairy are living and breeding throughout the dish.

But fruit – whether it its raw state, in a chutney or a jam – is largely safe. as its high acid content means that the mould is largely skin deep; but you must make sure to cut away a large chunk to avoid getting spores on your knife and spreading it to the healthy food. There is one big exception: apples. Don’t eat mouldy apples, as you will get very, very sick.

I can’t wholly agree with May, though, as the process of making any jam or chutney staves off the presence of mould for a long time. If you open a fresh jar of jam or chutney and it has mould in it then something has gone very wrong with the culinary process, and the substance before you is likely to be riddled with dangerous organisms.

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If you return to an opened jar of chutney or jam and it is mouldy, then at least one of the following things must have happened. Perhaps you have used the same knife for butter, bread or what have you and it is actually that residue that has gone mouldy. Once you have removed it, your jam is safe to eat, but also, just use two different knives, or clean the old one between uses. The other reason that your jam will have gone mouldy is you are not storing it properly (seriously, just put it in the fridge, once opened), or, more likely, you don’t actually like the jam you have left to go mouldy very much.

In that case, the sensible thing is to write off the stuff as a bad mistake rather than pushing on regardless out of some misguided sense of obligation. Cosmetic changes are no substitute for simply admitting that the way you are living your life is deeply misguided and that you need fundamental change – in some cases to the condiments you buy, and in others to your whole approach to the European Union.