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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Expiration Date

I bought orange juice in November. I was sick; thought some juice would make me feel better. For some reason, however, I never opened the juice. I never unscrewed the cap, and more importantly, I never popped the inner seal.

This past week I decided to clean out the contents of the refrigerator. As I tossed aside forgotten leftovers and a half rotten bag of spinach, I came across the OJ, tucked in the very back of the fridge next to a tin of maple syrup.

The stamp on the carton read Nov 29 10. Curious, I shook the carton and then opened it up. I poured myself a glass and took a whiff. Orangey. The juice was the color of its parent fruit, without any sign of mold or rot. I drank three glasses of it as I finished the rest of my work. The next day, because I saw no problem with it, I finished the rest of the carton.

My little experiment's results didn't surprise me. I tend to be lax with expiration dates. Unlike the well meaning friend who once tried to dash the pills out of my hand once she saw the Tylenol had expired, I think of the tiny numbers as more of a suggestion than a rule.

This attitude was definitely something I learned as a child. In his copy of "Dad's Own Cookbook", my father found a chart of how long food can last when properly stored. He made a photocopy of it and it hung on our refrigerator as a guideline. The book, which I now have in my own kitchen, has this to say about hot dogs for example:
- opened package: one week
- unopened package: two weeks
- in a freezer and wrapped: 1-2 months

WebMD offers similarly practical advice in this feature article, as well as a guide to interpreting the difference between things like "sell by," and "best if used by" labels.*

On my lunch break at work while trying to get updates about the weather I stumbled on an article on's home page about exactly this issue.

The article raised an interesting point - regardless of whether  individuals choose to take a risks on an "expired" product or not, is it ethical (or legal) for schools or prisons to use foods which are past their dates.

Ah, So. The rub. I don't mind eating yogurt that's a week past its due date after I spot check it. What's more, after looking at it and smelling it, if I saw nothing wrong with it I would even give it to my own mother! But the question remains: would I want it dispensed sight unseen in a school? In a hospital? In a prison?

 There is so much food wasted in this country every single day.  In college I waited tables in the dining room of an Assisted Living Home for a while. At the end of the shift, I watched as entire pots of soup, plates of steak, steamed veggies were thrown into the dumpster. I begged the chef to let me take the wasted food at the end of the day to a local Soup Kitchen. "I'll do it myself," I said. "I'll come in on my nights off to pick it up as well." I imagined recruiting friends. We'd truck it over in backseats of our cars each night before the kitchen closed.

He smiled sadly at my idealism and then dismissed it. "We can't," he said. "The food wasn't kept on warmers. It can begin growing bacteria as it cools. As a chef, I simply couldn't allow people to eat that food. If they got sick..." He trailed off leaving me to my disappointment. It was one of my first lessons in the complexity of Hunger as one of those Big World Issues. Some people have more food than they need. Others have none. But sharing might be dangerous, so throw all the pot roast away.

So what about food BEFORE it is cooked? Do we have to throw that away too? Based on the voluntary dates that have been chosen arbitrarily in some cases and conservatively in almost all cases? what about milk in sealed bottles? Meat in its plastic sheath packing? What about canned goods, frozen foods, and rice in closed boxes?

Personally, I am not scandalized by the idea that prisons, schools, or even hospitals use food past the labeled "date," as long as the decisions to use the foods remain informed. Kitchen staff should have a knowledge of basic food safety and access to guidelines about the life expectancy of properly stored foods. They should be empowered by their direct supervisors to question stock based on what it looks like or smells like when they open it. The way anyone would do when cooking for themselves or a family member.

Also in college, under the tutelage of some Freegan friends I learned to harvest foods from dumpsters just after the local super market tossed away the day's produce. To this day, I don't see this as being much different from my Farmers Market strategy.** One of my favorite things to do then was to stake out the  Dunkin Donuts on Rt 9 near Spirit Haus.They didn't put trash in with their donuts. Just bagged up the donuts and tossed them away at 11pm. Sometimes they would just hand them off, all bagged up like that. The donuts had reached their "expiration time," and could no longer be sold to customers.

But they were still good. Believe me.

*At this point I'd like to smugly point out that WebMD says that food which is frozen is "safe indefinitely," which I tried to explain to a roommate recently when he wanted me to toss three perfectly good boxes of veggie burgers.
** The trick is to show up at Haymarket just as things are shutting down. When I've timed it right, I was able to  buy bags and bags of fruits for a mere fraction of the price they fetched all day.

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