Food Expiration Dates: Obey or Ignore?

by Kelly Senyei, Epicurious

courtesy of Naomi Pescovitzcourtesy of Naomi PescovitzThe other day I was doing my daily comb through my Facebook newsfeed when my friend shared the above snapshot from her mid-winter cleaning session. It's a box of Betty Crocker angel food cake mix, with an expiration date of May 31, 1991.

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The cake mix expired 22 years ago. Twenty-two years. That's three years before Justin Beiber was even born. As shocked as I was at the ancient date on the box, I knew there was no way I could throw stones given the current condiment situtation in my refrigerator. I have almost weekly discussions with myself in which I justify the "freshness" of that old bottle of Dijon or jar of sweet pickles, both of which are etched with dates signaling their contents are days, months, or (gulp) years past their prime. "Ketchup can't expire," I state in defiance.

I know I'm not alone in my blatant disregard of certain foods taking shelter in my fridge and pantry well beyond their recommended stay. And as it turns out, I may not be entirely in the wrong. According to a recent segment on NPR, we may have fewer reasons to fear the expiration dates on some foods. "Some" being the key word there. Of course there's no arguing over whether to obey or ignore expiration dates when it comes to foods such as meat, fish, cheese, and produce, just to name a few.

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But according to John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, food freshness is mostly a question of smell. Expiration dates are posted on food items as suggested "sell by" dates intended to protect the reputation of the good. There is no federal law that requires companies to date their food--the one exception being infant formula--but a majority of companies do timestamp their products as a way to suggest the latest point at which the food can be enjoyed at its highest quality.

What's your take on food expiration dates? Do you obey or ignore them?

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