A number of months after my husband died (which, sigh, was 3 years ago today), I rounded up some of his gluten free foods and attempted to drop them off at a local food bank. Alas, I was turned away because these items – all completely non-perishable – were a couple of days past their use-by date. I guess it might be demeaning for someone picking up food from a food bank to be given expired food. But,r ealistically speaking, there was NOTHING wrong with any of this stuff (pretty much soups and a packaged “risotto” that was one of the few things that tasted good to Jim during the final stages of his life). And my thinking was that someone with celiac disease might appreciate getting food that would work for them.
Anyway, I took the food back home and used it myself. It was fine – even if it was a few months past the whatever it was date on the can/box. Don’t we occasionally read about folks who open a can of something or other, fifty years after the bought it, and find – yummers – that it’s still good? I seem to remember a Civil War ration can being unearthed and can-opened when I was a kid. And someone ate it and declared it fine.
Certainly, there are foods that go bad. Like milk.
The store that’s closest to me is one I seldom patronize. A few months ago, I needed milk, it was getting late, I didn’t want to schlep to one of my preferred stores, so I stopped in at my local. I’ve lived in this hood for over 40 years, so I knew enough to check the dates. Hmmm. I couldn’t find a pint of 2% that was younger than 2 weeks expired. I took a pass.
Similarly, I always look at the expiry date on bread, yogurt, fresh-squeezed OJ, and packaged salad greens, reaching way back on the shelf to get the furthest date out. Fresh is better than not-so-fresh.
Thanks to my fancy-arse fridge, those greens last well by the best-by date. Yogurt, I know, is good well beyond whatever date is stamped on the cover. As for milk, well, I use the sniff test. If it’s a day-or-so beyond, I’ll take a whiff. If it doesn’t smell sour, and if there’s nothing solid chunking around in it, it’s on the cereal. (Or, I guess, I could make a sour milk chocolate cake, which I haven’t had in years. Got the recipe here somewhere…)
Completely rotten fruits and veggies go down the disposal. If there’s just a bad part, I’ll cut it off and go ahead and eat the rest. Mold on bread: gone! In my experience, in a loaf of bread where one slice has mold, the rest of the slices will tend to smell a bit off. But if the bread is just stale, well, dealer’s choice.
Same with a lot of food stuffs: slightly stale ain’t going to kill you.
Use common sense. Which is how us Baby Boomers grew up.
As for drugs, I usually have aspirin and some sort of cold and flu whatever around. When I go to use them, which is not all that often, I invariably find that they’re expired. I then go online, and most of the time, I find that they’re fine. Now, if you’re taking something life saving – like insulin – you have to be more careful. But for general purpose OTC stuff, the potency may somewhat deteriorate, but most of it still works up to a point well beyond what’s indicated.
But, basically, I really don’t know what those dates are supposed to mean. Which apparently places me in the majority of my fellow Americans, or so I learned from a recent article in the Washington Post (which you may need to be a subscriber to access). But help is on the way.
On Wednesday, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the two largest trade groups for the grocery industry,announced that they’ve adopted standardized, voluntary regulations to clear up what product date labels mean. Where manufacturers now use any of 10 separate label phrases, ranging from “expires on” to “better if used by,” they’ll now be encouraged to use only two: “Use By” and “Best if Used By.”
The former is a safety designation, meant to indicate when perishable foods are no longer good. “Best if Used By” is a quality descriptor — a subjective guess of when the manufacturer thinks the product should be consumed for peak flavor.
That's what most "use-by" dates indicate now, though studies have shown that many consumers believe they signal whether a product is okay to eat. In fact, it's totally fine to eat a product even well after its so-called expiration date. (Source: WaPo)
At least I have figured out not to be duped into deciding that something is unsafe to eat based on a date stamp. But what a con on the part of manufacturers this has been, if people are tossing out all of this perfectly good food.
Anyway, it looks like the simplification of the food expiration info will be a good thing. We’ll just have to remember the “Use By” is about safety. Wouldn’t it be better if they changed it to “Safe if Used By” or “Do Not Use After This Date.” Just saying. I’m sure I’ll keep using my visual inspection, sniff, and taste test. It’s worked so far!
And what are we to make of the different standards in other countries?
My niece Molly is studying in Ireland, and sent a picture of a mound of 1,000 year old butter from Cork. Looks more like a biscuit to me, but what do I know? All I can say is I will no longer worry when I can’t find the expiration date on my tub of Kerry Gold (butter that tastes like what butter should taste like, whatever its age)