What’s My Expiration Date?

October 23, 2011

There’s a movement afoot in Britain to do away with expiration dates on food. On the surface this seems like it might be a boneheaded idea, but scratch just below the surface and it seems fairly reasonable. A lot of perfectly edible food gets thrown out because it’s past its expiration date. Yes, we should all be a little concerned about not rushing toward our own expiration date, but the chances of most foods turning lethal because they’re one day past the recommended date is pretty slim. I’ve had skim milk that was still perfectly drinkable three days after its expiration date, although I’ve also had whole milk that smelled like a bad case of athlete’s foot two days before its expiration date, although that might have had something to do with the fact that I pulled it out of the refrigerator in the morning and forgot to put it back until I got home from work. Then there’s 2% milk, which I prefer to stay away from, because no one’s ever been able to tell me what the other 98% is. Keep scratching at the plan to do away with expiration dates, though, and it goes back to seeming like a boneheaded idea.

Well, to be fair, it seems reasonable in some cases but not so reasonable in others. With something like bread, for instance, I think we can pretty well judge for ourselves whether it’s edible even without a date. If it’s still soft and still smells and looks like bread it’s probably still safe to eat. If you can hammer nails with it or if it’s got those white and pale blue blotches on it it’s time for it to go to the compost heap, or possibly the backyard of that creepy neighbor who never mows. The same is true of fruits and vegetables. I know some older people who won’t buy green bananas because they’re not sure they’ll be around to enjoy them by the time they’re ripe. Personally I think that’s being way too focused on your expiration date. There are better reasons than that to not buy green bananas. I won’t buy them because I don’t have the patience to wait for them to ripen, and unripe bananas taste, to me, like a lime crossed with asparagus. Not that I have anything against either limes or asparagus, but they’re two flavors that generally should be kept apart. My mother used to occasionally experiment with recipes, producing something unusual like bouillabaisse gumbo, which would taste terrible. When I turned my nose up at it she’d say, "You like everything that’s in this!" And I’d say, "Yeah, I also like oysters and butterscotch, but I don’t put them together," but that’s another story.

Lettuce is another good example. As long as it’s still crisp and green it doesn’t matter if it’s past its expiration date, although, in general, you shouldn’t be keeping fruits and vegetables around that long anyway. If they’re going bad before you eat them that’s poor planning on your part and it has nothing to do with whatever date the manufacturer stamped on them. If you’ve watched late night television you may have seen these magic keep-your-vegetables-fresh bags, which basically look like green-tinted plastic bags, and they’ll supposedly keep your lettuce fresh and crisp for six years even if you take it out of the refrigerator in the morning and forget to put it back until a decade later. I’m a little disturbed by those bags because the only thing I know that will also keep vegetables fresh for that long is landfills. You may have heard that, thanks to the compact, no-oxygen climate created deep in landfills scientists have been able to dig down into them and pull out fresh heads of lettuce that have been there since Eisenhower was president. I sometimes wonder if future archaeologists will find these and think, "What’s the purpose of this? Were these people collecting lettuce?" But expiration dates on other things do serve a purpose. Take eggs, for instance. Without expiration dates you might not know an egg has gone bad until you’ve cracked it open, and then it’s too late and your whole house smells like a landfill. And let’s not forget canned goods. A while back my wife and I cleaned out the pantry and I found a can of squid. I’m not sure why I bought a can of squid, although I’m sure I had a good reason at the time. Actually since the expiration date was from sometime when Eisenhower was president I think it may have been purchased by the house’s previous owners, or possibly even left there by one of the construction workers who built the house. And I’m grateful for that expiration date because otherwise I might have been tempted to open it, and I’m betting the smell of a rotten egg is pleasant compared to the smell of bad squid. Expiration dates also help grocery stores keep track of what they need to throw out, or at least they do if the grocery store employees are paying attention.

I remember going grocery shopping with my mother once. She picked up a container of sour cream that was over a week past its expiration date. She mentioned this to the kid who was stocking the shelves, and he said he’d go get the manager. The manager then came out and started telling my mother that expiration dates were arbitrary and meaningless and that the sour cream was probably just fine, and that she needed to find something better to do than waste his time. On the surface and at every other level this was an incredibly boneheaded thing to say, not to mention rude, uncalled for, and inappropriate. And my mother proceeded to explain that to him in words that even he could understand and at a volume that guaranteed it was heard by everyone in the store. The sour cream, meanwhile, had mutated into a whole new life form and crawled away. I understand it’s still living in Waukegan where it works in a bank, and has a pretty nice lettuce collection.

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