Service of Expiration Dates

April 12th, 2012

Categories: Deadlines, Expiration Dates, Food, Medicine


I was alarmed to read in The Wall Street Journal that in order to curb food waste, the UK is discouraging grocery stores from using “sell by” and “display until” dates as they don’t feel they are related to food safety.

I don’t know if spoiled milk is unsafe, but I depend on those dates when I buy mine twice a week. Turned milk clots in coffee. I don’t like the sour taste or the look and milk seems to curdle right around the sell by date especially in summer.  Tossing a new carton or bottle of it is a waste–of nutrition as well as my time and money.

In the sidebar of Sarah Nassauer’s article, “Leftovers: Tasty or Trash?” she quotes Jonathan Bloom, an American who wrote a book on food waste: “‘Give it a smell, look at it, maybe even taste it,’ before tossing food.” He observes that “We have fairly well-developed instincts as a species for knowing if something is good or not.”

I once worked with a woman who thought she had such instincts. She’s the only person I know who ended up in the ER to have her stomach pumped because she took a small bite of noodle salad in dressing that had been in the fridge for a while. Her description of the stomach pump procedure was enough to make me err on the conservative side and never, ever taste food about which I have the slightest question.

wasted-foodThe statistics on food waste are eye-opening. Nassauer reports the average American home tosses $92 of fruits and vegetables a year. Is this because we hope to eat them and buy them as we do subscriptions to a health club or exercise equipment or because we are of a generous nature and want to be sure everyone has enough?

Drug expiration dates are related to food. The “Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide” information about the medicine cabinet life of drugs didn’t match the old wives tales I’ve swallowed for years [no doubt to encourage me to toss and buy more].

According to the guide: drug-expiration-dates“Most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration at the request of the military. With a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, the military faced tossing out and replacing its drugs every few years. What they found from the study is 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

“So the expiration date doesn’t really indicate a point at which the medication is no longer effective or has become unsafe to use. Medical authorities state expired drugs are safe to take, even those that expired years ago. A rare exception to this may be tetracycline, but the report on this is controversial among researchers. It’s true the effectiveness of a drug may decrease over time, but much of the original potency still remains even a decade after the expiration date. Excluding nitroglycerin, insulin, and liquid antibiotics, most medications are as long-lasting as the ones tested by the military. Placing a medication in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, will help a drug remain potent for many years.”

Nevertheless, before popping an old pill in your mouth, I suggest everyone first check with a doctor or pharmacist. Just your luck you may be about to ingest the equivalent of tainted food.

Do you pay attention to expiration dates on anything? Do you wish there were some on products where they don’t currently exist?


6 Responses to “Service of Expiration Dates”

  1. Nancy Farrell Said:

    I went to a wedding years ago and could not eat my meal because the chicken was pink. Never mind that I knew that pink was bride’s favorite color and that the lights were covered in a shade of dusty rose–I could not get past the fact that I knew what I knew–and I knew that I was seeing pink poultry.

    I make many of my shopping decisions based upon expiration dates. If something is missing that info, I will absolutely put it back on the shelf until I can find a similar item that has the date on it and if it becomes a common occurance I lose my enthusiasm for the store.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I can hardly write I am laughing so hard envisioning you –and everyone else –faced with pink chicken. Yech! Pink cake; pink ice cream; pink cream cheese [mixed with smoked salmon] but not pink poultry!

    You can count on one hand the foods I don’t care for. Top of list is grouse. I’ve tasted it twice and twice I could hardly swallow the tiny bite. And it had nothing to do with the fact that in both cases the waiters asked how the person who ordered it wanted it prepared…rare, medium, well done. It was simply, uh, fowl tasting: Bitter as the dickens.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    It’s a good idea to look for an expiration date for common sense reasons. The new UK policy is foolish at the very least, and may well lead to a number of embarrassing, not to speak of tragic food poisoning scandals down the road. Law suits are sure to follow and lawyers will get rich! But then Brits seem to be convinced they are always right, so a good comeuppance may be in order. It’s just sad that it may take unnecessary suffering along with a number of avoidable deaths to teach them a well deserved lesson.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’m all for helping people learn how to preserve fruits and vegetables and other food so it lasts as long as possible, reminding them how cold their fridge should be and sharing the kind of advice we read every year at Thanksgiving time about removing stuffing from cooked turkey for safety reasons [to avoid salmonella issues, I no longer put stuffing in my turkey–just lemons to keep the bird moist that I later toss], but subjecting folks to potential harm is, as you note, foolhardy and shortsighted even if the objective is a good one.

    I don’t know if they bring in lawyers at every turn in the UK as here and in any case, were a loved one to die unnecessarily, money wouldn’t sooth the loss. A shame that we don’t use the law in the front end to avoid horrible accidents rather than so much afterwards to punish.

    The Brits aren’t the only ones who think they know everything…there’s a bit of this attitude going on here as well. I’m not too happy knowing that my doctor can’t decide what’s best to make me well, should I get sick, but that major decisions are in the hands of a bunch of strangers with charts and insurance guidelines.

  5. Hester Craddock Said:

    As I am one of those people who believe that freshness is the primary factor contributing to the success of a well cooked meal, I do pay attention to expiry dates on food. I try to buy only as much food as I actually need to prepare a meal but am not always accurate which may indeed contribute to waste. However, the trade off is that that way I’m not faced with having to eat stale, reheated, leftover food

    A better guarantee of freshness, though, is the quality of the seller. Almost always, I’ve found the fresher food is sold in smaller, family owned and run stores. Stay away from chain stores if at all possible.

    On drug expiry dates, I had a long talk with my doctor about this a year or two ago. Besides pointing out, as Jeanne did, that you have to careful about which drugs with expired dates you are using because some can hurt you, he said that I should be aware that most drugs lose their potency as they age, and when old tend to become much less effective.

    A more serious problem is that the drugs we use are increasingly being manufactured in the third world where safety and quality standards are far lower than ours–that we can do nothing about given globalization.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    While I won’t eat leftover green salad with dressing on it–it’s wilted and I don’t care for limpy food–I don’t mind leftovers and sometimes think certain foods taste better the next day.

    After a dinner party or holiday celebration there often are goodies such as a special cut of roast meat, desserts and other treats that not only taste super on day two, they are like having a free meal both effort and cost-wise.

    My husband makes a timbale from leftover pasta. It is sooooo good. I haven’t made lasagna in years, but the next day it tastes better than the first.

    Regarding your comment re. drugs manufactured in other countries, this has happened for a long time. Many manufacturers are headquartered in the US. One would think that the shipments of these products to retail pharmacies would be subject to the same stringent tests as the drugs made here i.e. boxes opened randomly and bottles checked for quantity, quality, appropriately clean packaging and so forth. Reinforcement of FDA standards on drugs made wherever by foreign companies should be the same but……..may not be.

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