With the natural delegation of domestic responsibilities, some people are bestowed the jobs that require such skills as brute force, persuasive ingenuity, and unyielding diplomacy (as in dealing with the telephone company), whereas others are simply saddled with the task of deciphering whether the yogurt has gone bad. There is one in every household, maybe not an authority, but someone who everyone defers to when the beans smell a little too floral or the milk has taken on a new level of lactic dimension. “Here–tell me if this is still good?” is most often the question posed to these select few, and with time, and a decent sniffer, most of these defacto experts rise to the occasion. And for years all consumers had to rely on at least 4 of their five senses to keep food poisoning at bay.
Over the past few decades an imperfect system has been put in place to nominally aid consumers in figuring out which foods are worth consuming and which foods have passed their prime–it is called the expiration date. You will find them on everything from cartons of milk to boxes of pancake mix and virtually everything that is packaged and sold in grocery store. Some people live their lives in accordance with the expiration date whereas others treat it as a sort of yardstick and routinely consume a food product well beyond the expiration date.
A recent article by Nadia Arumugam on Slate.com titled “Ignore Expiration Dates” casts a serious doubt over the efficacy and validity of expiration dates. As it stands, there are no federal regulations that govern expiration dates, except for in the case of infant food and baby formula. All other expiration dates are decided upon by the manufacturers whim, or at least the most conservative estimates regarding the shelf life of a product. According to Arumugam, the expiration date printed on a carton of milk or a chicken breast means very little.
Food starts to deteriorate from the moment it’s harvested, butchered, or processed, but the rate at which it spoils depends less on time than on the conditions under which it’s stored and handled. For instance, a dairy product properly handled, stored, and refrigerated will more than likely outlast its expiration date, whereas one that spent far too many idle minutes between coolers will denature at a much faster rate. In an effort to lessen liability, manufacturers imagine how the laziest people with the most undesirable kitchens might store and handle their food, then test their products based on these criteria, and find a suitable expiration date to stamp on the top of each product.
Personally, I have opened cartons of milk well past the expiration date and found totally palatable and fresh-tasting milk inside. I have also been horrified by a yogurt cup that was still within its acceptable lifespan (according to the expiration date) but had obviously become way more cultured than I was willing to accept. So should we just thumb our noses at expiration dates all together and let our senses be our guides? Maybe more emphasis should be placed on food borne pathogens like salmonella and E. Coli rather than a bit of sour milk? Wouldn’t we likely save more lives this way? Or maybe we need to greatly improve the way we handle, process, and transport food in an effort to, not only save our stomachs, but also save likely millions of dollars in spoiled and wasted food?