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Swift: Expiration dates are just suggestions

Tammy Swift, columnist

Once again, my mother was right.

We've seen all sorts of stories lately on how the food industry is moving to replace expiration dates on food with an easier and more relaxed system that includes the terms, "Use by," and "Best if used by."

They point out that most expiration dates are entirely random and that, contrary to popular belief, that can of green beans will not magically turn to a pile of botulism-laced ash on an expiration date. While some of these foods might not taste as fresh and flavorful as they did when first packaged, they remain safe to eat.

The move is meant to not only make life easier for consumers, it also is meant to make us less wasteful. We throw away an estimated 40 percent of the food we produce, and the average consumer tosses out thousands of dollars in food per year.

I have to agree with this. It's an interesting dichotomy to see people who pride themselves on their eco-consciousness dump gallons of milk down drains and fill garbage cans with food because it is three days past its alleged expiration.

All I can say is this: It's about time the food industry started listening to my mom.

Forever thrifty, my mother has always viewed the term "expiration" as no more than a gentle suggestion. She does not believe in wasting food. I once watched her take a bruised peach and insist on cutting out the "good part," which consisted of a piece of fruit about the size of a toddler's tooth.

This is the woman who believes sour cream never expires ("It's supposed to be sour!") and whose pantry includes a jar of Commemorative Bicentennial Marshmallow Fluff that was purchased to celebrate our nation's 200th birthday during a Fourth of July party in 1976.

She has maple syrup from before Mrs. Butterworth was married and graham crackers that have been carbon dated back to 5000 BC.

On a recent trip home, I was spinning through her Lazy Susan when I found a section of food labeled "Expired." "Why are you keeping expired food?" I asked. "Oh, they are just a little expired," she said. "I'm keeping them in case I need them in a pinch."

And you know what? Her system works. Nobody gets sick, and her food is always delicious. The Margaretometer is much better at gauging food freshness than any random date concocted by the brainiacs at Nabisco.

For one thing, she has such a well-developed olfactory system that she can detect the precise moment at which a carton of milk is threatening to spoil. For another thing, she knows how to store food so it lasts.

Let's face it, if you wrap a pie in wax paper, three layers of freezer foil and a vacuum-sealed freezer bag, it is going to last in the deep freeze for three years.

Lastly, the most "historic" food in her kitchen is the stuff that is already so heavily processed that it could survive Armegeddon. Marshmallow fluff is essentially delicious-tasting spray foam insulation, so it really doesn't matter if it's four decades old. Everyone knows that xanthan gum and artificial color Blue 1 just get better with age.

The funny thing is that I used to make fun of her thrifty food-keeping ways, and now I'm doing the same thing. I am forever arguing with people that this bread is still perfectly good and those olives only expired last month.

Now if you'll just excuse me.

I need to throw my body over the garbage can so nobody throws away that cheese.

Cheese is supposed to be aged, you know.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at