Dating problems

Michel de Montaigne is a hero of mine. He was the 16th century French essayist who, well, probably invented essays. He seemed to write about anything, really -anything that caught his fancy, I suppose. But, although I could never hope to match his skill, or insights, I have learned other things from him as well as style and variety: he seemed think nothing of occasionally covering the same topic more than once, sometimes even with different opinions about it. I take that as a permission to do the same.

So, to the task at hand. The issue of food safety and best-before dates is an occasionally interesting thing for me to rewrite about -like when I’ve found something on sale because the store figures it’s only got hours to get it off their shelves before it starts to smell. Actually, this has worried me on and off for a few years now -I live alone and the food guidance labels don’t really offer any solutions to the warnings they issue: they neither list any credible antidotes should I foolishly exceed their stated limits, nor the phone numbers of on-call food scientists in the neighbourhood. I initially noticed this failing in a time of youthful angst… Okay I was actually in my 60ies when it became a worrisome thorn.[i] But now that I’m officially in my dotage, I have dredged up more memories, so I thought I’d add a bit more historical context that escaped me before.

There was a time as a child growing up in Winnipeg, when my mother declared it was easy to know when to use the food she bought: you had to use it right away. Very few people had freezers in those days -well, we didn’t at any rate- so food was usually bought and consumed in short order. And anyway, it was easy to tell when to bury it in the garden (she was too ashamed to put it in the garbage in case racoons got the lid off the can and spread everything in the lane behind our house for the neighbours to see). For bread, it was when it turned green and hard, or had a kind of musty taste which even peanut butter and jam could not disguise; when the floury paste on the left-over meat fritters turned greasy, and the meat (which was, in turn, a left-over from the burnt roast beef from Sunday dinner) began to smell like my running shoes, my mother realized it was burial time. But as deeply as she dug, it never fooled my dog who was able to unearth it with uncanny accuracy. In those halcyon days, I think any concern about food waste was balanced by the money she saved on dog food.

But things have changed: nowadays we have begun to worry more about profligacy… waste. I freeze any extra food I was enticed to buy because it was on sale. It’s often a trial and error process, however; you can apparently freeze eggs and use them later (or leave them to your heirs in your will); you cannot freeze lettuce and then make a serviceable salad. And anyway, I was never able to squeeze a head of lettuce into the tiny freezer at the top of my fridge -it was far too small and frosted up to cram much in past the ice-cubes that were also forced to live in there until a more meaningful job came along. It was a continuing source of anxiety for me until I invested in a rather large chest freezer that I keep the the garage. Now, the freezer is my next-to-best friend -second only to my TV which allows me to have a glass of wine while I watch the news and feel content that I’m not drinking alone.

But although I may live alone, much of the supermarket packaging assumes I contain multitudes. So I wait till food is almost outdated and is put on sale; then I divide it up, stuff it in empty plastic margarine containers, and put them higgledy-piggledy in the cavernous maw of the freezer. Eventually, I get a container of it out to microwave and then pretend to enjoy it while sitting alone at my little TV table in the kitchen. Life has its ups and downs, okay?

Freezers are hard partners to tame, though. What with the thick layer of ice and frost coating everything, it’s hard enough just reading the scribbled labels I attached, let alone estimating how long they’ve been held hostage in there; sometimes I can only guess at their ages when they thaw. But, does it actually matter how old defrosted spaghetti and meatballs are? I mean they were frozen, right? And so were any accompanying bacteria or whatever; if the food is old, the germs are too. Anyway, doesn’t ‘freezer burn’ take care of them? Fortunately, I think other people are beginning to look into that.[ii]

Expiration dates on food labels often have little to do with when the food ‘expires’, or becomes less safe to eat. There are two functions of a food label: first, a nutritional guide to inform consumers of the nutrition and ingredients in packaged foods, including the amount of salt, sugar and fat it contains -and that is supposedly dictated by nutritional science; but the expiration dates on the labels are often less science driven and come from the food producers.

For example, a food producer may survey consumers in a focus group to pick a “use by” date that is six months after the product was produced because 60% of the focus group no longer liked the taste. Smaller manufacturers of a similar food might play copycat and put the same date on their product.[iii] Rather than an existentially worrisome ‘expiry date’, or a ‘you’d better use by (or else) date’, better advice might be for a label to say something simple, like ‘best if used by’… Some labels actually do say that here in Canada nowadays; even if I’d never have bought them had they not been on sale, I feel morally at ease when I freeze them.

Of course some products are ‘potentially hazardous foods’ if they have characteristics that allow microbes to grow -like moisture and an abundance of nutrients on which germs thrive. These foods include chicken, milk and sliced tomatoes, all of which have been linked to serious foodborne outbreaks. Clearly, food labelling advice should reflect this -perhaps with an easily recognized symbol of caution. Not a death threat, or anything… but, personally, I would shy away from anything with a skull and crossbones on it.

Still, given my prairied background, I’m torn between hoping people will actually read and think about the advice on the food label, and wondering what kind of klutz would buy a foul smelling chicken breast, or a musty, hard-as-cement loaf of bread no matter what assurance the label provides. And anyway who would freeze something that already reeked?

Uhmm, well I do have to admit I’m curious whether it would still smell the same when it thawed… Just wondering though, eh…?



[iii] Ibid.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close