Food Expiration Dates Are a Hoax and You’re Dumb to Believe Them

Stop worrying that your food is too old.

Photo by Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock

Not long ago, I was in what the kids at work call the “cafe” but I call the “lunchroom,” retrieving my yogurt from the refrigerator, when my boss came in to get a cup of coffee. Attempting to make small talk so as to, you know, suck up, I mentioned, “Gee, this yogurt expired more than a week ago. Would you eat it?”

Whereupon my mild-mannered, even-keeled boss replied “No!” so explosively that I gaped in astonishment.

“Sorry,” he apologized. “I just have a thing about that. I won’t eat expired food.” It was so deep and personal a glimpse into his psyche that I blushed and hurried away.

I ate the yogurt anyway. I was hungry. Besides, I don’t pay much attention to numbers. Take, for example, eggs. To be honest, I never even realized eggs had an end to them until last Christmas, when I was baking cookies and happened to notice that according to the date on the egg carton, the contents had expired in July. What to do? Risk wiping out my entire clan with a batch of tainted Nutmeg Gems, or run to Wawa on a cold, dark winter’s night?

The clan survived.

Tom’s vehemence made me curious, though, and I began to pose the question to people I know: Would you eat a yogurt a week past its expiration date? I was surprised to find that there wasn’t much ambivalence: You’re either an expiration-date truther or a what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger type. (The anomalies: a few outliers who claimed to be date-agnostic except for milk.) The hyper-fastidious (well, they seem that way to me) didn’t sort themselves neatly into category by age or gender or degree of sybaritism or any other sort of obvious distinction. This was more complicated than that.

Consider my son Jake. “Of course not. That’s disgusting,” he answered my question, and, when I tried to probe further, quickly shut me down: “You trim fungus off bread. You scrape mold off cheese. I’ve seen you do it.” He sounded like he was accusing me of murder. My husband, on the other hand, lives highly dangerously, ingesting leftovers long past the point where I think they’re dicey. Yet there’s a rest stop on the Northeast Extension he won’t visit even to use the bathroom because he contracted food poisoning from an egg salad sandwich there in 1984. When it comes to food safety, we seem to be ruled by emotion rather than our heads. Which got me wondering: What exactly happens inside a container of Siggi’s when the timer ticks over? And who decides what date should be on it, anyway?

Rosemary Trout is program director of Culinary Arts and Food Science at Drexel University’s Center for Food & Hospitality Management, and an expert in food safety and labeling. She also has a name that’s essentially a recipe. She actually thanks me for noticing this when I point it out, as if it isn’t what 99.9 percent of human beings who meet her say. But she’s very gracious, and, as she’ll tell me later, she tries hard not to be cynical.

Trout, a petite, cheerful 50-year-old, brings me a very good cup of La Colombe coffee when we meet in the Academic Bistro on the sixth floor of Drexel’s Academic Building on North 33rd Street, then proceeds to educate me about food labeling.

First off, those dates aren’t, as I always imagined, set by the U.S. government (with one exception, which is baby formula). And again, with one exception (baby formula), they haven’t got jack-doodle to do with your health, though I can tell I’ll have a hard time convincing Jake of that. “They’re based on sensory characteristics, not food safety,” Trout explains. As counterintuitive as it may seem, Big Grocer goes to the trouble of sticking those dates on everything from soup cans to Goldfish crackers to hummus to protect you from … soup or Goldfish crackers or hummus that looks or feels or tastes at all different from what you’ve always had before. According to a 2013 study, a whopping 90 percent of Americans don’t know that this is what the labels mean.

“There’s a difference between spoilage and safety,” Trout tells me. When it comes to food, “to spoil” doesn’t mean “to rot”; it just means “to lose valuable or useful qualities,” according to Merriam-Webster and Trout. Baby carrots, for instance, are cut down from bigger carrots, leaving more surface area, and thus more of their beta carotene, exposed to oxygen. When the beta carotene reacts with oxygen, the carrots get lighter in color. Technically, they’re spoiled. They may be marginally less nutritious, but they’re still fine to eat. To Big Grocer, though, alterations that affect a food’s texture, color, taste or odor are very, very bad, because consumers have come to expect total consistency. As it turns out, date labels are all about brand protection and not about you getting sick. Surprise!

Trout says expiration labeling can be traced back to the surge in our consumption of processed foods that started toward the middle of the last century. You’ll notice that a bunch of unbagged carrots doesn’t bear any expiration date. Neither does a lemon, or a cantaloupe, or potatoes that you pick out of a bin yourself. It’s a rare shopper who pays any attention to who grew her lemons, so there’s no brand for anyone to protect, unlike, say, that loaf of Wonder Bread. The more whole, unprocessed food you buy and eat, the less you’ll find yourself confronted by expiration dates.

This isn’t to say that potatoes don’t go off. Let them sit around for too long and they’ll eventually get soft and wrinkly and grow those weird pale stalks out of their eyes. A medieval housewife would throw those puppies right in the pot without a second’s hesitation; for her, food was too precious to waste. But in produce-must-be-perfect America, chances are you’ll turn your nose up and buy replacement potatoes instead.

It is true that certain foods are more prone to harbor microorganisms than others, which is why we don’t eat rare chicken. Back in the day, Trout says, a farmwife who under-broiled her broilers only endangered her family and anybody else eating supper at her table. But thanks to the wonders of transportation and accessibility, salmonella and norovirus can now sicken dozens, even hundreds, at a time.

But the big food-poisoning outbreaks you read about aren’t caused by foods that are past their expiration dates. They’re mostly traced to contamination somewhere along the way to you — to cooks at Chipotle who don’t keep the burrito innards hot enough, or a supermarket prep chef who doesn’t wash his hands before cutting up lettuce for the salad bar. And the single largest current cause of food recalls is allergies — cross-contamination in a factory with peanuts, say, or soy — rather than the presence of bacteria or viruses.

Thinking of food labels as cosmetic rather than scientific could save you the cost of replacing perfectly good yogurt and help reduce food waste, a problem that’s been all over the news lately. Last year, a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that American consumers waste a pound of food per person, per day — food it takes 30 million acres of cropland a year to produce. In case you’re feeling holier than thou — not I, no way! — you should know that the higher the quality of your overall diet, the more food you toss out uneaten. Makes sense, if you think about it; when you were an impoverished college student, you were more likely to take a chance on that sell-by-four-days-ago package of fried chicken in the back of the fridge than you are today.

A cynic, I mention to Trout, might accuse food companies of using expiration dates as a form of planned obsolescence, to trick us into getting rid of perfectly safe food and buying more.

“A cynic might say that,” she allows. “I’ve heard that many times. But I try hard not to be cynical.”

Back in the 1990s, some clever marketing dude at Pepsi came up with the bright idea to festoon every can with a “freshness flag” reading: “For best taste, drink by date on bottom.” A related marketing campaign featured the president of the company proudly declaring that the date was a guarantee that the can’s contents were “at the absolute peak of freshness.” Up until that point, nobody had really worried about stale soda pop. But the campaign hit at a cultural moment when consumers were becoming consumed by freshness dating. The labels “will change the way you look at soft drinks!” Pepsi’s TV ads proclaimed.

That’s exactly what concerned consumer activists at the time. “It’s not as if they’re saying Pepsi is good for you. It’s a little more subtle,” the director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the New York Times. And the co-founder of the Center for the Study of Commercialism worried that “fresh might imply a healthfulness analogous to dairy products or fresh vegetables.”

Companies that stamp expiration dates on super-processed foods like breakfast cereal and potato chips and frozen pizza are angling for that same implication. The “best-by” date prods you to think a) there’s actually some nutritional value in there; and b) you’d better hurry up and ingest it before it’s too late. Whereas a pear just sits forlornly in your fruit bowl until it’s mush.

There’s a movement afoot to strip the date labels from foods in order to cut back on those mountains of food waste we generate. Trout isn’t buying in. She understands the concern about conserving resources, but she also has her own bugaboos: She won’t consume expired milk or lunch meat. I express surprise that a food scientist even eats lunch meat.

“I eat almost anything,” she tells me. “I like a hoagie. I live in Philly. Anyway, that style of food came about in the first place to prevent food waste. So did all the fermented foods we see being revived today — that’s an ancient form of food preservation. You alter the microbial content.” She and her husband, a physicist — he teaches a popular course at Stockton University called “The Science of Ice Cream” — love going out to eat. If she really likes a restaurant, she says, “I try not to look too hard at how clean it is. Eating is more than safety. It’s also social. It’s deliciousness.” I can sympathize. The other night, my cat brought me a mouse she caught in the kitchen. A vermin infestation can get a restaurant shut down. Yet I regularly pick up and consume cherries and carrot sticks that I drop by the fridge. Listen, I worry enough about the big things, like asteroids and climate change and gerrymandering. If I start freaking out about germs on my kitchen floor, I’m doomed.

Squeamish types like Jake seem happy to be heading for a world where they’ll survive on Lunchables and Red Bull and that weird Soylent powder. (How could they with that name?) If he thinks that crap is healthier than homemade bread because it has expiration dates to magically protect him, he fits right in with the contemporary American mentality that abrogates personal responsibility to our corporate and government overlords. Chrissake, we ought to be able to feed ourselves without having giant food conglomerates reassure us that what we put in our mouths is okay — especially when those conglomerates are desperate to sell us Jelly Donut Oreos and Jimmy Dean Blueberry Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick.

For her part, Trout argues that we should rely on our natural instincts when it comes to food safety: “Trust your sense of sight. Look first, then smell. If it grosses you out, don’t eat it.” (She does note that disgust levels vary widely. But you’re the one doing the deciding, right?) Buy in small quantities — only what you’ll eat or freeze within a couple of days. Buy whole foods, and prep them yourself. (“Tear up your own lettuce leaves!”) Her top food-safety tip is downright antediluvian: “Really good hand-washing. Twenty seconds for the whole process. Oh, nobody does that — it’s a long time. But it’s good to have goals.”

I’d add one more food-safety goal: Ix-nay on the term “expiration date,” with its connotations of, well, death. What doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger. Think of those microorganisms as free probiotics. Hey, who doesn’t love kimchi?

Published as “Death by Yogurt” in the January 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.