It seems there are two types of people. Those who strictly adhere to expiration dates, and those who take them as simply helpful suggestions. I tend to belong in the second group. Perhaps it is due in part to my upbringing. My Dad would lop off the green end of the brick of cheese and proclaim “see? It’s fine!” My mom kept opened salad dressings in the cupboard, not the refrigerator. The family cough medicine had been around so long the label had browned. (Then again, in those days, cough medicine was generally about 90-proof, so it probably never lost its impact.) I grew up understanding phrases like “how expired is it?” and “well, how does it smell?”
I still adhere to those guidelines for the most part. If a product is near, at, or just after its stamped date, I give it the sniff test. I learned this test at a young age. Of course, if you have a head cold, then you move on to the Roulette Game of taste-testing – which is a much more daring thing to do. But I digress. Now, before you run screaming in horror and vow never to eat a bite of food at my house, let me be clear that there are certain food items for which I more or less take expiration dates as gospel: primarily dairy products. Milk, for example, when at or after date, is not something to be ignored. Luckily, with a teenager in our house milk rarely even gets a chance to come close to its cut off date.
However, I do believe the expiration date on other products can be given some leniency. If bread still smells, looks and feels fresh, I go for it (my husband tends to disagree with me on this one.) If an herb in my spice rack still smells and looks ok, I’ll use it. If a condiment has been kept cold in the fridge and hasn’t started to turn green, I’ll probably deem it safe. I take my eggs out of the carton and store them in one of those nifty plastic egg holders in my refrigerator – so I have no clue what their expiration is – however, I’m certain I’d know if one has become rotten as soon as it is cracked.
Sometimes we have products in our possession that are past their expiration dates simply due to neglect. Canned goods that get buried in the back of the cupboard can often take up residency, un-noticed, well beyond their prime. That’s when cleaning out a cupboard can be like an archeological dig, as I dust off the tops of a can of soup or a canned veggie and find out it has been hiding in there longer than we’ve had our dog. Depending on the age, I may pause and say “I wonder if this is still any good?”. I take special notice of the wording used with the stamped date. Does it really say “expires by”, or merely “best if used by..”? I figure if it is saying “best by…”, then it really is giving me a friendly suggestion. Kind of like “this may taste like crap, but it won’t kill you.”
Where I really tend to adopt a relaxed attitude is with dates on non-food items, things like over the counter medicines and sunscreen. I horrified a co-worker not long ago when she came to my office asking if I had an available ibuprofen for a headache. I scrounged around in my desk drawer and began to pull out small bottles with dates from a year or so ago, and little plastic bags in which I had thrown a variety of pills like vitamins, Tylenol and the like… the only problem being, of course, that I was no longer quite sure what was what nor how old any of them were. My co-worker was aghast, and wouldn’t leave my office until she was quite certain I had disposed of the drug menagerie appropriately. Clearly, she is from that first group of people I mentioned, those that strictly adhere to dates. But really, what could go wrong with an outdated aspirin? Worst case, it wouldn’t cure that headache. But could it really “go bad”?
Recently, through bad planning on my part, I was rather desperate for something to eat for breakfast while at work. In my hunt for sustenance, I came across one of those one-serving packets of oatmeal in my drawer. You know the type, a small plastic sealed cup, add hot water and you have truly instant breakfast. I was thrilled. I flipped it over and read that the “Best by” date was 7 months past. I paused and thought “could it really be that bad? It is oatmeal. Dried flakes with dried apple bits, in a hermetically sealed container.” And, again, it was that friendly phrase “best by”. So I went for it. And it was fine. Didn’t taste any different than if I’d heated one I had bought yesterday.
I got to thinking about how reliant we’ve become on expiration dates to rule our use of products. We assume that they are placed there by some quality control expert, working for the manufacturer and adhering closely to guidelines set by the FDA. But in reality, isn’t it some stranger somewhere working a date stamping machine? Are we letting that stranger tell us whether or not to use a product, rather than relying on our own common sense?
I hope we never get to the point where we humans were stamped with expiration dates. What if my forehead was stamped with “2050”? Would I reach the ripe age of 85 and be cast aside because I had expired? Hopefully if we ever get to that point, rather than “expired”, my stamp would read “best by.” I can live with that – I may be at my best before I hit that age, but I’d like to think I still have a few good years in me.