Breathing life into expiration
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? Edgar Allan Poe
As I sat in my train for the early morning commute to work, I did what I always do, which is to flick through the morning papers for things worth reading. A story that delved into how a chef of a few years had quit his job to sell expired food caught my eye. His business model was built around collecting expired food products from conventional supermarkets and then selling these on (presumably at a discount) in his own establishment. Given on average a high percentage of food (e.g. 40% in the USA worth $165 billion), goes to waste or into trash bins this seemed like a great idea.
But hang on a minute! Aren’t expiry dates put on products for a reason? Can we really ignore nature’s message that something has moved from edible to possibly rotten? Can a lifelong habit of obsessively checking for expiry dates on products be willed away even if I was assured such products were perfectly fine to eat? Would I not be chomping at the opportunity to sue for a fortune if I was sold an expired product that made me ill?
Undaunted I read on and did a little bit of research into this. It turns out that a report by Harvard Law School threw cold water on the long-standing notion that “sell by,” “best by” and “use by” dates on food were as accurate as most of us (apparently 90%) believe. The report made it clear that these dates were not reliable in determining when food actually became bad for you to eat.
As I researched further, I began to realise that the chef and others pushing to re-sell expired products were not merely morally minded do-gooders who hated being in societies where so much food was wasted and yet people existed who had no idea where their next meal was coming from. These were mostly entrepreneurs such City Harvest and Lovinspoonfulsinc as who see a gap in the market and were actively trying to plug it as any commercial business would.
This story reminded me of watching expired cars transformed and a new life breathed into them as sought after kitchen stoves. In fact on a short trip to Ghana a few years ago, I was struck by the thought and appreciation that went into preparation to put loved ones six feet under when they died. To some of these folks expiration was an opportunity to announce to all what contributions the dead made to their community. These announcements were not merely done vocally but were done through colourful coffins (video below).
I wondered if Out-of-date or “expired” food could conjure up that sort of fanfare. I wondered if we could ever get over the psychological barriers, almost inbred into us since we first entered into a supermarket or a shop, that we could actually eat food past its sell by date? I wondered if we put our God given nostrils and sense of smell to better use, we couldn’t pass some food as good to eat even though they may have expired. I wondered if I couldn’t quite happily enjoy my 1 month old passed-expiry-date digestive biscuits. I found this by Chitra Ramaswamy helpful – The nine rules of best-before dates: when to freeze, when to chuck out food.
What do you think? Could you ignore an expiry date on your food? Would you make a difference between different foods e.g. dairy products as against biscuits?