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Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

Posted December 29, 2016 12:00 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: expiration date food USDA

I classify certain members of my family as “check the date” people. They’re the most likely to have fridges containing foods long past their expiration dates, so when eating at their homes I try to discreetly find the little printed dates on the mayo jar before sticking a knife into it. I often cringe when I see them gleefully squirting three-year-old Dijon mustard onto their sandwiches and wonder: How are they not constantly getting sick? Have their stomachs adapted to ingesting spoiled condiments? Or were they born resistant?

I’ve learned that there’s very little science and almost no standardization to food dates and labels, and they’re widely misunderstood. So-called “expiration dates” don’t refer to the actual date a product ceases to be edible and were never really meant for consumers, anyway. Their origins date to the 1970s, when manufacturers started printing coded dates on food to inform supermarkets when to rotate their stock. A few consumers hacked the codes in order to decipher the freshness of their food, and the New York Consumer Protection Board published the method in 1977. The plain-English “sell by,” “best by,” and other markings are basically extensions of this system.

Expiration dates effectively protect the manufacturer, though. Food technologists test food and give it a number grade at different ages and conditions, so manufacturers pick out a grade at which they’re even a little uncomfortable selling their product and set the expiration date accordingly. For example, if a food researcher gives a product a grade of 7 when fresh, a manufacturer may choose to set an expiration date at the time a food reaches a 6 or so. It’s not anywhere near “expired,” but its quality may be slightly less than fresh. The problem is a food past whatever date is printed on it tends to immediately turn an average consumer’s stomach. And there are dozens of confusing ways to express an expiration date, so how are consumers to know the difference between “sell by,” “best before,” and “after opening, use within 5 days”?

This misunderstanding is one of many factors influencing the global problem of food waste, especially in post-industrial countries, where food waste stats often top 40% of production. In 2015 the United States Department of Agriculture and EPA jointly issued the country’s first national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030. And in May the Food Date Labeling Act was introduced; the bill proposes unifying food quality dates and providing on-product guidance about foods at a high risk for spoilage. While the bill is still sitting in Congress as of this month, supporters believe it will help cut confusion and reduce the amount of perfectly safe “expired” food that winds up in landfills. These efforts complement other food waste initiatives around the world, including South Korea’s “pay-as-you-waste” and France’s fines on wasteful supermarkets.

Food technologists stress that a product’s smell is usually much more accurate for predicting spoilage than an expiration date. Concerned consumers can also tap one of many free guides to food shelf life. One of these, the searchable database StillTasty, draws on food safety research conducted by the USDA, FDA, and CDCP.

I still find myself a little queasy when rummaging through my relatives’ fridges, but it’s comforting to know that the expired foods they’re eating daily are (most likely) fine to consume.

Image credit: Ashley Davidson / CC BY 2.0

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#1

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 1:11 AM

And then there are the so-called expiry dates on things that don't actually ever expire - like table salt.

Printed on the bottom of my 26-oz saltbox is date '6/2020,' and so what happens on 7/2020? It spontaneously mutates into The Andromeda Strain?

It's salt for pete's sake. Sodium chloride. NaCl. It doesn't expire. Ever. But they still put a date on it.

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#23
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:55 PM

Ever look at the expiration dates on prescription medications? Anyone who can explain why all prescription medications expire exactly one year after being dispensed, please tell me; even physicians can't explain it. I have a problem with politicians and lawyers defining these things.

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#26
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:59 PM

It is because the little space aliens in the pills can't breathe after one year...

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#2

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:15 AM

"Charlie Farnes-Barnes' Mineral Water - percolated and purified for hundreds of years through rocks for that clean and perfect mineral taste. Use within 7 days." It's sales and marketing to boost revenue - the more that gets thrown away, the more get purchased.

There is no best-before date on cynicism.

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#4
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 7:25 AM

"Charlie Farnes-Barnes' Mineral Water - percolated and purified for hundreds of years through rocks for that clean and perfect mineral taste. Use within 7 days."

Playing the devils advocate here,... If its stored in a PET bottle, it just may protect you from carcinogens leaching from the container into the product.

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#5
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 8:45 AM

What they're really saying:

"Charlie Farnes-Barnes' Mineral Water - percolated and purified for hundreds of years through rocks for that clean and perfect mineral taste. Great stuff until we get hold of it."

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#6
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 8:53 AM

Yes, and if you open it, you have to drink it, or the water will go flat.

Wait a minute.... Maybe the leaching chemicals is an acquired taste. And we'll get a spokesperson that can sell it... lets see... who do we have, that don't have to believe in our product, but will sell it at their price......

I'm going to hand this idea off to marketing...

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#7
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 9:08 AM

Please. I'm eating breakfast.

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#8
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 9:44 AM

ah, ahh, ahh,... put your fork down and check your expiration date?

This has been a public service announcement

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#12
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 11:23 AM

Oh crap! I'm 12 years late for my funeral!

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#22
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:54 PM

Don't worry, Death will wait his turn. I often look over my shoulder for him.

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#21
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:54 PM

That really was a sickening display of persons whom should be barred from ever speaking - anywhere, any time.

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#46
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/01/2017 10:02 AM

Yet they have a following...

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#20
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:53 PM

The plasticizers leaching from the bottle are only a problem if you are a teenage boy, and do not wish to experience gynecomastia.

Dibutyl phthalate really does not emit much odor, and I have no idea what it really tastes like, especially if the water is tainted with strawberry aroma, flavor.

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#54
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/04/2017 6:27 AM

"Go get 'em, Floyd".

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#53
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/04/2017 6:25 AM

Switzerland is an interesting country. Wherever there is a fountain in the town square, the water is warranted as immediately drinkable. One doesn't see PET bottles there anywhere, really.

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#19
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:49 PM

That is because it is water, and there be beasties growing in there.

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#55
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/04/2017 6:29 AM

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#3

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 7:23 AM

Expiration dates That I believe is more from Government regulations. Dry goods such as flour, if stored correctly, can last a very long time after the expiration date.

It doesn't necessarily protect the manufacture, but what is more important is the manufacturing lot numbers on packages. This is valuable in case of some type of contamination or manufacturing mishap such as incorrect label(ing), metal particles, bacteria, etc... for recalling.

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#24
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:56 PM

Depends on if you like the meal worms that can infest flour. Or weevils (small evils). They may be protein, but their poop is weevil poop.

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#27
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 5:05 PM

We keep our flour in the freezer

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#31
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/30/2016 9:17 AM

Great minds travel in the same circles. It works 100% of the time, and no minor evils in the flour (weevils).

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#43
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/31/2016 11:07 AM

You reminded me of a visit while in the RN to Capetown in 1972. I came offshore with a friend of mine and we were both ravenous and could only find a fresh packet of Ryvita crispbread/biscuits and some butter.

We eagerly buttered them and wolfed them down. I was pretty drunk, but my mate did not drink alcohol at all.

The next morning, I am lying in my bunk nursing a large headache, when my mate comes over, retching as he came over.....

I asked what was wrong. It turns out we had eaten MILLIONS of weevils, in their larva state in the Ryvita.....smeared in butter by our good selves!!

I remember saying that I am sure that our stomach acid had done them a lot more damage than they us!!!

He eventually heaved up his stomach contents, I took painkillers for my headache!!

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#9

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 10:12 AM

This makes me wonder about medication expiration dates. Pharmaceutical chemicals can, I'm sure, degrade over time. But do they become more dangerous or just less effective? I do make a point of clearing out meds past their expiration date (I take them to the annual "turn in your old prescriptions" drive) but maybe I'm overly hasty.

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#10
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 10:54 AM

I've always wondered that too--I've taken Tylenol that was a year or two past its date. When staying at my grandparents' house we used to use 30-year-old VapoRub and nothing came of that.

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#11
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 11:17 AM

My mother-in-law had some aspirin that was turning fuzzy, literally. I think the components were degrading. She famously had only taken one aspirin ever in her life, and she kept the rest of the bottle in case someone else needed one.

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#32
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/30/2016 9:20 AM

Humidity (as in bathrooms) does wonders for recrystalization of acidic drugs that are water soluble (such as aspirin), also, aspirin will slowly lose some acetic acid to the environment, and revert to salicic acid. Otherwise, it could be lint from towels, LOL?

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#42
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/31/2016 10:56 AM

That sounds like they were absorbing moisture from the air!

My wife never puts the caps on properly either.....

Years ago, before expiration dates, the manufacturers put a moisture absorber "tablet" in (far bigger than the normal tablets I hasten to add!) to take up any possible moisture, over many years. Now they don't need to!!

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#50
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/02/2017 3:39 PM

Aspirin smells like vinegar when it is too old.

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#51
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/03/2017 5:54 AM

The compound from which the active ingredient in aspirin was first derived, salicylic acid, was found in the bark of a willow tree in 1763 by Reverend Edmund Stone of Chipping-Norton, England. (The bark from thewillow tree—Salix Alba—contains high levels of salicin, the glycoside of salicylic acid.)

Both are acids!

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#30
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/30/2016 8:25 AM

That's because VapoRub does nothing when fresh - ask any doctor about this.

My Wife, who is an RN, was totally embarrassed by a pediatrician when she ask about using that stuff. Yes - he knew she was an RN.

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#13
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 1:02 PM

Generally speaking, they will lose potency over time. This presumes they are stored properly, low humidity & temperature (not the fridge).

That is not always the case - best to ask your doctor. But most meds will just lose potency, not become poisonous.

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#36
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/30/2016 11:35 AM

According to the following studies most drug's efficacy can last up to at least 10 years after its printed expiration dates, specially if properly stored..

http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/drug-expiration-dates-do-they-mean-anything

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#25
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:57 PM

They make you lose your memory - "where did I put that bottle of X"?

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#41
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/31/2016 10:52 AM

Any meds that I use, that are not "dry", get stored in the fridge.....never had a problem.

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#56
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/16/2017 5:28 PM

Hi, at our company we manufacture certain products containing antibiotics, which are purchased bulk from the manufacturer. These products are usually contained in double plastic bags within an aluminum sealed container, and kept at specific temperature and humidity. When delivered, the manufacturer certifies the potency of the drug, which will decline over time. Every time we produce a batch of products to be sold we outsource samples to two different labs to establish the current potency, in order to know how much antibiotic has to be added to the formula to comply with the intended use. In some antibiotics, the potency stays unchanged for a lot of time while in others, it decreases by 0.1% a month or so.

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#14

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 2:54 PM

One should differentiate between the "Expiration Date" and the "Best if used before date"

USDA prefers to follow the Best if used before date.

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#15

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 3:01 PM

I find expiration dates to be specific to certain products... on some, like crackers, the taste changes dramatically, on some things, like yogurt, nothing seems to happen...so I really only pay attention to some, others I ignore....I've frozen Entenmann's for months and when thawed they taste as fresh as the day they were made...

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#16

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 3:09 PM

Here's 11 food items that should have an expiration date.

Now, honey they say the shelf life is about 2 year, because it will change color or crystalize. But the crystals is only sugar and by heating it up will restore it.

But the shelf life is actually indefinite.

I believe they even found honey in Egyptian tombs and it was still...palatably.

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#17
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 3:45 PM

I think you're right about the honey in the Egyptian tomb. I've brought honey back many times by putting the jar in a pan of hot water and stirring occasionally. And I've cooked dried beans that probably came over on the Mayflower. Takes more water, but they tasted OK. Thanks for the link!

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#28
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 9:17 PM

I generally agree, but I have recently encountered pure honey that couldn't be put back in solution using the technique you mentioned; so I just added it to my tea anyway. The dilution took care of the problem.

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#29
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/30/2016 8:17 AM

Now I have a craving for tea..

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#18

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/29/2016 4:48 PM

If milk is past the best by date, better smell it first, before dousing the morning oatmeal.

Pretty much anything in our refrigerator could have been left out of the refrigerator all day by my absent-minded wife. Actually I am not sure she is absent-mind, or just hell-bent on doing me in.

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#33

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/30/2016 9:26 AM

Expiration/use by dates have a positive side as well. If you know when the vending machine company is checking your machine stock, and you make it a point to be there when they do, you can get some great deals on sandwiches that are still quite edible. I get a half price deal nearly every week. Then there are the processed bagged goods, such as chips, which are now being half priced in our machines as well when nearing that magical, but not really true, date. I like seeing 1980's pricing on such items again.

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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/30/2016 9:40 AM

Just make sure you eat your berries, or take antioxidants. Foods increase their free radical content as the fats and oils age through interaction with oxygen, and background radiation. Unless of course, this vending machine is located in a mountain bunker with exceptionally low background count. Sometimes mountains and caves have higher background because of naturally occurring deposits of certain decay products.

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#35

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/30/2016 11:10 AM

I have an immune systems so pretty much anything that tastes tolerable is edible.

As for expiration date numbers I find them about as useful as serving size suggestions. Maybe the work for some but they don't mean much to me.

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#37
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/30/2016 1:39 PM
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#39
In reply to #35

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/31/2016 3:42 AM

Yes - I have heard it said that if you can keep it down, it's good!

I have some floss in my dental floss museum which is over 100 years old. Can still use it.

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#52
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/03/2017 1:50 PM

You are just nasty! Let's not disturb my lunch!

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#38

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/31/2016 2:05 AM

Jonathan, you actually the check the date freak in your family, even checking the dates on your families products while having a free meal. I do not even know the dates at my own house, trust my wife, I have other things to do.

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#44
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/31/2016 11:18 AM

The only dates I check is dairy, poultry, meats and fish. Never checked cans or dry foods stuffs.

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#45
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/31/2016 1:51 PM

Makes sense, me too!

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#47
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/01/2017 10:48 AM

If and when you noticed the packaging of canned foods starts to bulge and deformed is an indication that whatever is inside has began to deteriorate and no longer safe to consume!

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#48
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Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/01/2017 10:55 AM

We have a boy scout food drive in our neighborhood. They have it a couple times a year. When it first started, I pick out some canned goods and was very surprised that the expiration date came and went.

so once a year, we do clean out our pantry. To ensure it's up to date.

there is one food items that I used though, and that is cheese. It only gets sharper, just have to cut off the mold.

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#40

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

12/31/2016 5:04 AM

There's a date printed on money and for sure it's "potency" rapidly decreases thereafter.

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#49

Re: Reversing The Total BS Of Expiration Dates

01/01/2017 3:46 PM

I believe expiration dates are used as a guide by the manufacturer to monitor and control the process line. How does he know when there is too much or not enough through-put from the line to the distributor/consumer? It is also used to save his a** in case something goes wrong and of course it means more profit (through waste).

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