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Do expiration dates make sense?

Can you make sense to what they mean?

Do you know what you want it to mean?

The two aren’t necessarily the same!

One answer to the elusive expiration date question

We have seen ‘used by’ dates, ‘packaged on’ dates, ‘production’ dates, ‘expiration’ dates.

We don’t know what the truth is, or if there even is one. But, we do know what we have experienced over the last ten years. This is not meant to be a formal guide or a definitive answer to understanding product dates. I suspect that there are rules that are  meant to help achieve some lofty goals, but those rules just can’t apply to everything the same way all the time, and still expect to let the very best to shine through. But I digress…

We also know that there are those food producers that interpret, and those that misinterpret, the rules to their best advantage, but not necessarily yours.

Like today, we are used to getting products from all over the world, and like today, the small companies, the family run places that we buy from and represent, didn’t have to adhere to all the labeling rules that are designed for the big industrial food makers.

When it comes to “dating” the product, those that do it usually pick a date that seems relevant to the consumer. Most often, and the thing that gives us the biggest pause, is the ‘manufacture’ date.  This is the date the item is packaged; the date the food is put in the “bag”, so to speak, or when it was made. This is my favorite ‘date’ of all, and I will tell you why later.

The biggest problem with this ‘date’ is that, because it is very uncommon (in fact, I haven’t seen it in at least a year,) when we see any date, we assume that this is the ‘expiration’ date. Therefore, the ‘pack’ date means that the product is always “late”. That is, the product appears to be expired the minute it rolls out of the production kitchen and into the distribution channel.

Today, we usually see a ‘use by’ date, or ‘expiration’ date, or a ‘sell by’ date. What this means to the shopkeeper is that product must be pulled from the shelves by that date. The question is how definitive is this rule? Or, is it, in fact, just a recommendation? For shopkeepers like us it means we have to be ever diligent.

This is where it also gets very cloudy for us, for a number of reasons.

Some manufacturers put dates on their products that say, ‘exp. 5.11.11.’ To us here in the US, this means this product goes bad on May 5, 2011. Therefore, the product is now out of date, right? What it may actually mean is that the product “expires” on the 5th Day of November in 2011, as the European date convention is first “day” then “month” then “year.”

Some countries, in order to control and ensure safe product assign ‘expiration’ dates base solely on when the item is manufactured. The date might make sense, but what we have seen so far is that it rarely does. Setting a date of six months, or two years, doesn’t reflect or do the individual product justice.

And, following the requirements creates a significant cost to the manufacturer/importer. Imagine having to print a new label every year or every month or every day! This can add up to some pretty costly packaging expenses, especially when you only produce a couple hundred jars or bottles a year! The fallout of this dating issue is product that arrive to us with a “short” date, meaning less than the “usual” shelf life. Sometimes this happens is because the producer just can’t afford new labels, or they have the packaging already labeled from last year and use what they have.

Those events rarely happen now, and it is something we confirm if the product dated by talking to the producer, or by simply it.

My biggest problem with ‘expiration’ dates is that it really only tells you when the product is “expired”, but it doesn’t really tell you what “expired” means. I mean, what does it really mean? What does it imply? Ideally it means that you should consume it in some time frame that we all can rely on or expect. Except that’s not really the case, is it? In some cases, we see large manufacturers put an early date on their products so the retailer is forced to move the product and then buy more. Or, more commonly, the product is manufactured to last forever that never goes “bad”. Of course, it may never be good, either; Pretty much guaranteed for any product that has an expiration date many years out.

Or, more humorously, is the case of Italian Panettone. We know from experimentation and experience, and from finding some “misplaced” panettone way back when it had a good, long shelf life; long past the pre-Easter expiration date that they all seem to have today. It always made us wonder why, until we realized that the Panettone makers want to make sure that their breads are cleared way in time for the stores to purchase Easter Breads – otherwise known as a Panettone in bunny clothing.

Let’s get down to brass tacks here. Salted anchovies last a really long time, that’s why they are today and have been for generations, packed in salt. The same is true, perhaps even more so, for salted capers. In some cases, “aged” products, like tuna, are considered better the older they are. Foods like fruitcake, which is drenched in alcohol, and figgy pudding were not only invented to solve a long term storage problem, but some consider them better the older they are, and will not even consider eat them until at least a year after ‘manufacture’ date. And, if filtered (by natural means) olive oil should last years from its harvest date.

Do spices expire? Yes, for sure they do. But, we all have had old spices and we still use them … maybe they don’t have the spunk that they should, but sometimes we have no choice – its what we have on hand. And, though thousand-year-old-eggs aren’t a thousand years old, well you get the idea…

So, taking this all into consideration is why I like the ‘manufactured’ date stamp. It happens when the product is made. Think about it, no cheating is really possible, and we the consumer can make our own decision on if we want to purchase something based on our own experience. Though, it might be a little disconcerting to buy a Twinkie or a loaf of bread that was manufactured 10 years ago …. if you at least know when it was manufactured, you can at least make that decision for yourself.

eat simply live well

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