There’s a never-ending holy war raging just beneath the surface at our house. One of those Mars vs. Venus male vs. female things that never gets resolved. I’m talking about irreconcilable differences over the potential life or death consequences of abiding by date codes.
You know what I’m talking about – those dates stamped on everything edible we buy. They read like a litany of must do’s invented by the food police, “Best if used by,” “Best before,” “Sell by,” or “Use by.”
I’ll wager that the typical male shopper grabs the “better than butter spread” or the loaf of bread without a glance at date codes. I’ve never heard from another guy, “Oh, Richard, those codes … they rule my shopping life. I search through the shelf for the latest date before I flip any package into my cart.”
So I decided to get the low down on date codes hoping to prove that this business practice, alleged to protect us, is nothing but a marketing scam designed to pressure us to throw away perfectly good food and thus buy more from the Almost-Food and CheezWhiz conglomerates.
So I do the 21st century equivalent of research and type into Google, “history of perishable food date codes.” Well, that was a mistake since it produced “about 198,000 items in .28 seconds.” My hair hurts and I’m looking only at the first entry.
I, however, did learn a few things.
The only hard and fast enforced codes are for baby formula and some baby foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They require a “use by date” which is the equivalent of a “hard” expiration date. All the other codes and dates stamped on our food products are voluntarily placed there by the food manufacturers and are advisory.
The Agriculture Department (USDA) regulates fresh poultry and meats and requires labeling of the date when the item was packed. However, many manufacturers and retailers have carried that a step further adding their own “Sell-by” or “Use-by” dates. That again is voluntary and not legislated.
Talk about the foxes guarding the hen houses.
It didn’t take marketing directors long to figure out that if we consumers read an arbitrary date that implies we’re gonna die if we eat what’s in the package after said date, we will probably discard whatever is in the package and buy a fresh one.
We have just increased their sales volume and now turned these marketing clowns into corporate heroes. Lemmings? Did I hear anyone say, Lemmings?
A little more reading and I find a passage that advises us that, if properly refrigerated, our pasteurized milk can remain fresh for as much as five days after its “Sell by” date.
Here’s my rule of thumb about dairy products: If your milk smells and makes you want to retch or contains lumps – not good. If you see green fuzz in your yogurt, sour cream or cream cheese – not good. If your cheese is packaged with green fuzz already in it – okay. But if new green fuzz appears after cheese has been opened – not okay.
Are we confused yet?
Let’s move on to beer. Yes, beer has become a part of the grand date code conspiracy.
Date coding beer started shortly after the end of Prohibition. It was used to protect ne’er-do-wells from buying “green beer” – beer that had been rushed to the market without proper aging. The date stamped on the bottle top had nothing to do with health or safety. Only taste.
In the mid-1980s The Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams beer was among the first contemporary brewers to add “freshness dates” to their product. For years no one other than beer makers, and maybe your Geeky beer gourmand knew about the dates.
Then in the late 90s, Budweiser marketing gurus decided it would be a good idea to advertise “beer freshness” and warn us about alleged funky beer taste.
Hence, the concept of “Born-On Dates” was started.
The date stamped on the bottle of Bud has nothing to do with when the beer must be consumed. It’s only an indication of when the beer was bottled implying that if we don’t drink fresh beer, we’re somehow denigrating the world of beer.
Here’s my rule of thumb about beer: If it’s cold and you want it cold – drink it. If it’s warm and you want it warm – drink it.
And finally, here’s my rule about date codes in general:
Trust your eyes – green fuzz no.
Trust your nose – retchy smells no.
Trust your tongue – funky taste, spit it out … preferably in the sink, not on the floor and never, ever on the white linen tablecloth.
Good health to ya’ll.