Friday, January 05, 2007

Expiration date conspiracy

It is my not-so-firm-but-just-nuts-enough-to-blog-about belief that Expiration and Use By dates are a conspiracy by supermarket companies and food manufacturers to convince people to by new products even though the old products are just fine.

Now, as a caveat to the conspiracy theory one must keep in mind that it ONLY applies to condiments. I do realize that milk goes bad and eggs get rotten. But what about condiments? WHY do they have an expiration date? For the love of God, vinegar has been used as a preservative for thousands of years! And yet horseradish (consumed yearly in mass quantities by Jews every year for Passover and at Christmas for prime rib dinners) expires about 1 year after purchase. That's right, it expires JUST in time for the holidays! And who would feed their beloved guests something that is expired? Nobody, that's who. So we all throw out the old horseradish and buy new horseradish.

Catsup/Ketchup also expires. It's 'Use by' is a bit longer than horseradish but despite the fact that it is left, unrefrigerated, on restaurant tables for days upon end because it has a natural preservative (again, vinegar), it needs to be used by a consumer within 18 months. Why? Does it taste different? With mostly sugar and water and vinegar I would think it'd probably taste even better over time as the water evaporates and sugar content goes up. I'm not a chemist, I'm an IT geek. So I could be wrong on that. But does it matter? The reality is that pickles preserved in vinegar will stay edible through the next nuclear holocaust. Vinegar is what the cockroaches will be drinking in little martini glasses when the world ends. So how does it magically 'expire' in my fridge just because there is a spicy chopped up root floating in it?

The answer: it doesn't. But the grocery store loves it when I come back every year and buy more horsey sauce for my gefilte fish. They love it even more when I 'recycle' my pickles (yes, they expire), mustard (yes), catsup (yes), salad dressings and marinades (yes and yes). So for now I'll have to rely on my girlfriend, the cleaning lady or possibly my mother to come over to take condiments out of rotation. Because I won't replace them. I won't provide Heinz, Hellman's and Kikoman the joy of 10% year-over-year growth in a static industry. The buck stops here!

Now I realize, in summary, that the use by dates for condiments are for 'ideal freshness' or optimal flavor. But you know something? If it ain't true why are Americans so paranoid about expiration dates and anti-bacterial sprays and mists and decontamination and ... you get the idea.

If you're still not convinced but you hate throwing out all those bottles every year, check this link out and make a horseradish-soy-sauce-caper-Étouffée.


Judy said...

You won't be able to rely on your mother to clean out the condiments unless there is something green and fuzzy on them. Mine are probably older than yours because I totally agree. Must be in the genes!

Judy said...

You won't be able to rely on your mother to clean out the condiments unless there is something green and fuzzy in it. My condiments are probably older than your. I totally agree. Must be in the genes.

Matt Baker said...

Good point about the vinegar, but horseradish does get old-- allyl isothiocyanate (the spicy stuff in horseradish, wasabi, etc.) decomposes, and leaves it bland.

Anonymous said...

I agree - and I think there's more to it. As a small retailer of foods and dietary supplements, I think the real conspiracy here is to put small businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

A big vitamin store gets a shipment of a supplement that "expires" in 6 months - no big deal. They can sell through that case in a week. Whereas if I take delivery of it, most of that product may go past its date long before I sell through it.

I've been living on past date supplements and foods for as long as I've been in business. The products are fine, and my family and I are fine.

It wasn't very long ago that very few products had expiration dates, and everything was fine. This ubiquitous date coding was a solution in search of a problem - and since to offer my customers a good price I have to buy in some volume,it's putting me at a huge competitive disadvantage.