There I am, living in blissful ignorance of the fact that my refrigerator was swamped, overrun, infected by container after container of food that was past its prime, was poised and waiting to attack me and my children when we least expected it and where we least wanted: our digestive systems.
And it’s all about those silly little “best if consumed by” stamps…
As you can see above, though, it’s really easy to have food that’s theoretically no longer good, even if it’s sealed and airtight. The yogurt above has a “sell by” date that’s twenty days in the past: is it safe to eat?
My girlfriend Jolene decided to check everything in my fridge this evening and it was astonishing to see just how much food I had that was actually expired, some by years. The biggest culprit? Salad dressings.
Here, have a look, everything in the below picture was expired and is now dumped down the sink:
What’s puzzling about this is that there are foods labeled “best if sold by”, some labeled “best if eaten by”, and others with still other dates. What do they mean, and why isn’t there a consistent labeling scheme? Heck, is it really particularly dangerous to have some “expired” salad dressing, even a year after purchase?
Yes. It is dangerous, as I learned from some searches, and here’s what’s really alarming: the expiration food safety dates are voluntary and are calculated and added by individual manufacturers based on their own criteria, not a standard formula for ingredient shelf life based on empirical research.
Manufacturers assign a date to products for various reasons, and spoilage may or may not occur before pathogen growth renders the product unsafe. Most, but not all, sell-by or use-by dates are voluntarily placed on food packages. Although most use-by and sell-by dates are not enforceable by regulators, the manufacturer’s use-by date is its recommendation for using the product while its quality is at its best. Although it is a guide for quality, it could be based on food safety reasons…
Um, when I read “pathogen growth” in the same sentence as “shelf life”, well, it’s time to pay some attention! Not sure why? Go watch the film Contagion.
A bit more digging and it appears that best practices in food safety are to throw away anything twelve months after the ‘best if used by’ or ‘sell by’ date, even if it’s closed and appears to be airtight. If you’ve opened something like a mustard or jar of pickles or salad dressing, then it’s best to throw it away three months after being opened, whether you’ve finished with it or not.
Now my family, we can go through ketchup really fast but salad dressings are a less frequently consumed item. So I’m not likely to follow the three-month rule, but after a year, it’s not radical to dump expired foodstuff down the sink and recycle the container.
Really, it’s kind of yechy when I think about it. I had a salad dressing in my fridge that had a ‘best if consumed by’ date of 2008. 2008. Scary. Could have created zombie children or much worse.
The long and the short of it is this question: when was the last time you went through your refrigerator and checked the expiration date on everything?
You can also read a far more informative article on the same fridge cleaning adventure by checking out Getting Rid of Expired Foods from Jolene’s Healthy Discoveries blog. She’s a much better researcher than I am!