Monday, August 10, 2015

Past its prime: Expiration date debate

Awhile ago, one of my friends from back home sparked a great debate on Facebook. The debate over yogurt, specifically, yogurt passed its “eat by” date. Naturally, my friend took to social media to decide what to do—to eat or not to eat? I, ever one to live dangerously, was solidly in the “Eat it!” camp.

“Give it the sniff test,” I encouraged her, “If it passes that, then take a small bite and if it tastes good, go for it!”

Others were vehemently opposed.

“Don't do it! It's not worth the risk! You could get food poisoning!” her best friend warned.

In the end, she ate it. And lived to tell the tale. I'm fairly certain she didn't get food poisoning either.

Many Americans are obsessed with these dates. The problem is, they are confusing. There is “sell by,” “best by,” and “eat by” dates. What's the difference and does it matter? Many reports claim these days are arbitrary, yet lead us into believing we must trash any food passed the marked date. According to this article by National Geographic, over a billion tons of food is wasted globally each year; in other words, roughly a third of food produced annually is thrown away. That's got to be enough food to feed most of the world's hungry.

I didn't think any nation could trump Americans obsession over expiration dates or surmount our food waste (the average American family throws out US$1500 worth of food a year!) but leave it to the Chinese to outshine us, at least on the former front (I'm sure they'll catch up to us in waste soon enough). They have taken expiration labeling to a whole new level. Never mind food, anything is fair game--there are expiration dates on perfume, hand tissues, and printer paper. But it goes deeper. Last week, I realized the full depth of the insanity.

photo via

“When does wine expire?” my Chinese friend asked, in a tone that sounded like I'd be graded on my answer.

“Expire? Wine doesn't expire. But I've heard that after 150 years most wines turn to vinegar,” I told her, almost certain of my answer.

She smiled at me knowingly and replied, “Well, Chinese wines expire. I saw in the supermarket that Great Wall red expires after ten years."

I don't know, but a little part of me died with the knowledge that the Chinese nouveau riche may never experience a good vintage out of fear of expiration. Then my most painful realization occurred, Chinese cheese connoisseurs may bypass a tasty aged cheddar for some seemingly newer, fresher cheese. I hope it isn't so. Some things truly do get better with age.

But the real question is: where is this paranoia coming from? In the case of China, I think expiration dates give consumers a false sense of security. They provide them with a feeling that the food is safe if eaten during a certain time frame, when the reality is food quality is poor due to reasons outside of age and freshness. Anyone living in China knows that food safety scares are unending. This summer it came to light that decades-old meat was being smuggled in China. Talk about being past its expiration date, yuck. Labels mean little. When eating in China, one has to be careful, but also realize you may end up eating something questionable no matter what precautions you take.

Do you check expiration dates carefully? What kind of things do you do to ensure your eating healthily?


Anonymous said...

Ha! I love this because I literally just did the 'smell and taste test' with my yogurt this morning. Alas, I lived to tell the tale.

I've had food poisoning in China more times than I'd like to count, so I'm pretty sure that eating something slightly expired won't kill me. I'm usually only hesitant with meat--because that can REALLY kill you. With meat it's pretty easy to tell if it's rotten or not since it stinks so badly.

I'm always alarmed at the rules for catering in the USA and how much waste it creates. When I used to help run events, they said the catering food could only be left out two hours or it would be thrown away (even with the heating devices). People weren't allowed to take home leftovers for liability reasons. So much food was tossed. Awful.

I notice Chinese people always order more than they can eat in restaurants, too, because they want variety or they want to show face for their friends or something. This makes me sad as well.

The wine comment from your Chinese friend is just mind blowing. Then again, Great Wall wine is pretty bad so maybe it DOES actually expire, haha.

Super interesting post!

Anonymous said...

I prefer when the products have "production date", then it's up to you to decide :D

In my experience, men are proner than women to throw food. My current boyfriend and my ex boyfriend would throw anything on the day the product expires. I prefer to do the trying test, you cannot get food poisoning by eating a tiny bit... Apart from that, with yogurts, milk, meat, fish, etc, it is very obvious when it is bad!

Once with my ex boyfriend I did a test. I gave him something to eat that was perfectly fine but the expiration date had passed. After he finished I asked him, "Was it good?" "Yes", he said. After a while I told him, "It was expired", then he said he wasn't feeling good, haha. Men!

Anonymous said...

Oh this topic...there was a big debate about it in Germany as many people are afraid already when food approaches the "deadline".
It can be said that for example yoghurt is usually perfectly fine sometimes even months past the expiration date. Only in case the lid is "blown outward" it is s sign that it started to get moldy inside so you should throw it away. This applies to all kinds of food also the frozen readymade veggies etc or canned food, perfectly fine even years past the date :)
Furthermore it was shown during this debate last year in Germany that food which is produced during the very same day/ production cicle do have totally different expiration dates varying even by weeks and months sometimes!

rosieinbj said...

@Mary, I worked at Barnes and Noble cafe when I was in college and we sold Cheesecake Factory cheesecake (OMG, soooo good). We were supposed to throw it out if we didn't sell it within a few days and it was such a painful thing to do! Chinese people do order a lot at meals; it's a traditional and a way of showing your hospitality. People are getting a bit better at getting doggy bags. Another interesting aspect is that the leftover food is collected at the end of each day and sold to farmers for pig slop. Gross, but at least it's not totally wasted!

@Marta, that's funny that you've experienced this paranoia mostly with men. It's true of my husband. He doesn't want me eating anything one day past expiration, though I do it all the time with stuff like cereal.

@CCF, interesting fact about the yogurt! I agree that there is so much variation in how this is done. . . it seems kind of arbitrary.

Eileen Huang said...

I've been told they have an expiration date so they don't get sued. For an example, they know for sure that it will be expired by such and such date, so they have an expiration date a few days before or something "just incase" somebody eats it and get sick from it and then try to sue them for it. Who knows.

Betty has a Panda said...

Look at it, sniff it, touch it, and if you're still not sure, let your cat sniff it. Works with meat and any diary product. If it looks ok, but the cat doesn't eat it, you shouldn't eat it too! But all jokes aside...

Some people are just too paranoid. Products must have expire dates because of law, but still everybody must check themself if a product can still be consumed or not. Would you spoilt spoilt milk although it is not expired yet? No! Expect you want to diet really bad and lose a few kilos in three days. Noodles, like wine, have also an exipre date but don't expire if you store them dry. You should I through them away if they are still eatable? It is just a huge waste of money and food resources.
You should be careful with meat, but also there you can still see and smell if it is good or bad anyway.

Mr. Panda eats expired food, but he is very sceptical and asks me all the time if something can still be eaten. The conversation looks like this all the time:
Mr. Panda: Betty! Can [insert any food] still be eaten?
Betty: Does it look bad?
Mr. Panda: No.
Betty: Does it smell bad?
Mr. Panda: No.
Betty: Then you can eat it.

Autumn said...

Yeah, I think there's a lot of give in expiration dates. However, they serve a purpose -- if one looks at them. Andy doesn't drink milk in his coffee. Andy did put milk from a new carton in my coffee. Andy didn't look at the expiration date.

Bad things happened.

My Doctor Sister, BTW, pooh-poohs expiration dates for medicine in pill form.

rosieinbj said...

@Eileen, I was also told that in China it's done for reasons to avoid being sued. I guess I can understand for food products, but for perfume and paper? It's seems a bit strange!

@Betty, in the US these dates actually aren't required by law. I think it's part of the problem because there is really no set standard. I agree, we definitely need to use our common sense in deciding if something is good or not.

@Autumn, was the milk already bad??