Saturday, January 7, 2012

The "Best Before" Date Myth

Every once in a while I read the obituaries in our fridge (icebox). I don't mean curling up with newspaper atop the crisper drawer in the refrigerator. I mean determining the "shelf life" of our chilled food supply. Few things frustrate me more than throwing out containers of flavored yogurt that have never been opened, thinly sliced corned beef sealed in the apparently too distant past by the Safeway butcher, or a carton of orange juice rushed to our home from Florida only to languish too long in the coolness of the fridge door. In each case, the prominently displayed date on these consumable items suggests certain death if even a small sip or nibble is taken. It is as if the development of germ warfare has begun in our kitchen and must be destroyed. Sometimes, when I open the fridge door, I am sure that I hear the ticking of a 100 clocks marking off the seconds until botulism has conquered our entire food supply. Most times I smell a conspiracy by retailers. Who sets these dates? What sort of safety factor is built-in? Who monitors these "best before" bandits? Doesn't this date stamping practice simply appeal to our laziness, our quest for convenience, our penchant for eliminating the need to discern?
What did we do before, the invention of the now ubiquitous "best before" date stamp mindlessly applied to almost all food and drug products. And what does it mean, "best before"? Whatever it was originally intended to mean, it now virtually demands that consumers pitch the product the day following, failing which dire consequences will quickly ensue. No more need to sniff carefully for smells of deterioration. Observation skills to detect small patches of mold are no longer necessary. Just read the label and toss. Fear trumps forensics and economics.
This is been a difficult practice for me to adopt. When I was very young, I would be sent to the basement room where jars of homemade jam and "canned" fruit (the "canning" process was a misnomer as thick jars were used to seal fruit in their syrup) lined the shelves in annually replenished supply. There was a date on these glass containers, but it was the day, month and year that the fruit had been pulled from scalding water and vacuum sealed. I was instructed to choose the oldest jar to bring upstairs. Aside from ensuring that each jar when opened let out a small ‘pop’, there was only a limited inspection undertaken. In fact, if a bit of mold lined the wax seal of some strawberry jam, it was simply scooped off without a second thought. In like manner, if cheese wore a little fuzzy green coat when pulled from the cooler it was merely skinned and used without any consideration of impending death or disease.
Today, most "civilized" parts of our world have seemingly stamped "best before" dates on the foreheads of all older members of society. We all seem to have been conditioned to believe that at a certain time in life each person has outlived their "best before" date. That person has become outdated, a candidate for the discard heap, having nothing useful to contribute any longer. As I approach my 60th anniversary of entry into this world, I sometimes wonder whether I will soon reach (or maybe already have reached) my "best before" date. Certainly, having a degenerative, chronic disease, Parkinson's, has the potential to leave me feeling somewhat moldy and beyond my prime. But is the societal "best before" message true?
An instructive experiment was undertaken on the expiry dates used in 100 medications. It was determined that 90% were effective and safe for as long as 15 years after the specified date. In fact, "best before", read literally, simply and most unhelpfully means what it says, that a particular product is likely to be best if used before a particular date. It does not read "bad after". In fact, it is, at best, a qualitative guidance.  With the exception of fine wines, and serious whiskey, which could usefully have a "best after" date, what products are not "best before" the earliest possible date?

Maybe it's time to return to making our own decisions about when something, or someone, is no longer useful. Maybe looking beyond the surface will allow us to find a lot of good left to enjoy and a lot to contribute. Maybe there is no real "best before" date.

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