Seems like almost all food products these days have expiration dates on them. Are these dates, often worded as “best if used by” dates on the jars, bottles, cans, wrappers, or boxes, warnings to indicate that something may be amiss if the product is consumed after the stamped date? Or is it some conspiracy by food product marketing companies to scare us into tossing out perfectly good food and spend money to replace it with a “fresher” product?
My approach to determining whether or not something is okay to consume is to apply a series of sensory tests. The first test involves using my eyes. Do I see anything blue or green growing on cheese, for example? When I open up the jar of salsa that has been in my refrigerator for a couple of weeks, are there white fuzzy things growing inside the jar? Is a penicillin-like mold spotting my bread slices? If so, regardless of the “best if used by” date marked on the package, it’s time to toss out the product.
The second test involves the sense of smell. If I put my nose up to the opening on the milk carton and a foul stench strong enough to invoke my gag reflex emanates from within that carton, it’s a sure sign that the milk has turned, regardless of the date stamped on the carton. But if the milk smells like milk, even if the “sell by” date on the carton was two weeks ago, I will then hand it over to my wife, whose sensory perceptions are much more acute than my own, and ask her to stick her nose in the carton. If the milk also passes my wife’s sniff test, I feel safe pouring it all over my bowl of raisin bran and munching away.
I became curious about this “best if used by” date as a result of several recent occurrences. First, my wife tossed out nearly a dozen eggs because the “best if used by” date (or maybe it was the “sell by” date) had passed a week or so earlier. Unfortunately, you can’t look at an egg, assuming its shell is not cracked, to see if it looks bad, and because of its shell, you can’t really sniff an egg to see if it smells bad until after you crack it open. I don’t recall, as I casually tossed the eggs, one at a time, into the kitchen sink, any "rotten egg” smell wafting up and into my nostrils. But it was a fun thing to do, nonetheless.
I suppose, in the scheme of things, and particularly with the recent “egg scare,” tossing out all those eggs was the prudent thing to do. My wife also pointed out to me that our sticks of butter have “best if used by” dates stamped on the packages, which is something neither of had ever noticed before, much less heeded. I don’t want to tell you how long ago some of our sticks of butter should have best been used by.
Then just yesterday I was fixing myself a tuna sandwich and I noticed that the jar of mayonnaise that I pulled out of the refrigerator had a “best if used by” date of June 16, 2010, which was about two and a half months ago. I opened the jar and looked inside. Nope, nothing fuzzy growing in there. I stuck my nose into the mouth of the mayonnaise jar and it didn’t cause me to retch.
Having passed my eye and smell tests, I took a spoonful of the “expired” mayo and mixed it into my tuna fish. Then I took out two slices of mozzarella cheese where the “best if used by” date stamped on the package was mid-August. I carefully examined each slice of cheese and saw nothing unusual. No white spots, no blue areas around the edges. When I smelled the cheese slices, they smelled like cheese. Despite that, the cheesy smell didn’t cause me to retch either.
I confidently put one slice of cheese on each of the two slices of toasted bread, which had also passed my inspection for moldy spots. I spread the tuna fish and mayo mixture on one slice of the cheese-covered toast, sliced up a tomato and placed it on the tuna fish spread, put the two pieces of toast together, and proceeded to eat my sandwich. It was delicious, even though several of the ingredients were well passed their “best if used by” dates.
According to the USDA, the “best if used by” date serves as a recommendation from food manufacturers to suggest that the food will have the best flavor or quality when consumed on or before that date. It is not a “purchase by” or safety date.
Of course, that’s not how most people interpret that date. A study by the Journal of Food Science found that it was more common for people to perceive that foods labeled as being past their use-by date tasted bad, even though the food was actually not beyond that date. Conversely, taste acceptance, or considering the food to still taste good, increased when people ate foods that were labeled as being within the “best if used by” date range.
So is this “best if used by” date a ploy by clever food manufacturers? Is it intended to persuade people to throw out anything past the date, regardless of whether it still might be good, and to go out and replace it with the same product with a future “best if used by” date?
Being the cynic that I am, I believe it is. After all, I am still alive to share this tale of my tuna fish sandwich made with out-of-date mayonnaise and cheese.
Thus, while I will be aware of the “best if used by” dates, I will pretty much continue to ignore them and will stick with my sensory tests. If it’s not discolored, not fuzzy (assuming it’s not a peach), and doesn’t cause me to gag when I smell it, it’s still good to eat...for me, anyway.