THE IMMORTAL CAKE / do those “sell by” and “use by” dates have any real meaning?

Sell by dateBy Larry Sheingold –

Most everyone loves a young child’s birthday party. Cake. Candles. Celebration. But how would you feel if the cake’s ingredients were the same age as the toddler?

Can’t envision using a cake mix that’s turning two years old?

Then perhaps you underestimate the magic of chemically-treated and processed foods, especially those reliant on the $28 billion global food additive industry – the purveyors of shelf-life stabilizers as well as the colorants, acidulants, hydrocolloids, emulsifiers and enzymes we now call “ingredients.”

My market carries a Pillsbury cake mix with a “best if used by” date of a year from now. Betty Crocker’s yellow cake is “better” used within a year. Neither explains the differences between “better,” “best,” or usable at all.

It’s easy to find opinions on preservatives – from food purists who gladly share how these chemicals can kill you, to trade associations equally eager to explain how they are saving lives. But one aspect of the food preservative issue is not open to debate. Current labeling practices are inscrutable.

What does sell by mean? Born on? Peak quality? Use before? Enjoy by?

And what are the producers trying to communicate, since they decide what goes on their boxes, bottles or cans. Is this about your safety, or encouraging you to replenish your pantry with newer versions of their goods, despite they being no safer than the ones you threw away?

For a fascinating look at this, try former New York Times reporter Melanie Warner’s book: Pandora’s Lunch Box. You can find an excerpt  that starts with her home experiment to test whether package expiration dates mean anything.

Here’s a sample of what she learned:

“I always wondered what happened to food after the expiration dates passed. Would the cookies turn green or taste like old shoes? Would bugs crawl out of the cereal? I tucked the boxes and crinkly bags away in my kitchen for nearly a year. The dated printed on the package came and went, and I opened them, the results were fairly unremarkable: my cereal and cookies looked and tasted perfectly normal, almost as if I’d just bought them…

“I pictured fruit flies, or those tiny worms that get into the forgotten bag of flour in the back corner of the top cabinet. But none of this happened. Much of my collected food stubbornly refused to decay, even after as many as six years – far beyond the expiration dates…

“I wondered what had happened to this food to make it so eternal, so unappealing to the mold and bacteria that normally feast on ignored leftovers and baked goods. It seemed to me that the dates printed on the package had little to do with true expiration. What did those dates actually mean? Was it possible that foods that seemed perfectly edible could be immune to natural processes of decomposition?”

Indeed. Can a cake be immortal? A box mix everlasting? And if so, should they be? Topics to ponder. For now, the subject is printed quality dates – and whether we should be able to tell what they mean.

For that, enter California Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco). His answer is, yes. This February, he introduced AB 2725, contending that consumers are dumping food based on “best quality” dates that have nothing to do with food safety or usability.

His measure would create two standard date labels: “best if used by” and “expires on.” The expiration date would indicate “a high level of risk associated with the consumption of the food product.”

The bill gives the State Department of Public Health fairly wide latitude to make the law work. But it remains to be seen how the food processors’ lobby will feel about this. Do they want straightforward labeling? Or will they fight for continued ambiguity?

Are they content to have us dump usable products if it means selling us the replacements?

Further, do the food processors and additive makers really want to explore whether a boxed cake mix could be engineered to last decades rather than years, and the potentially harmful chemicals that might enable them to do so? Or to explain the tons of waste that prematurely discarded food creates – both in landfills and in efforts to feed the hungry.

These issues, and others like them, will surely come up as the Legislature considers Chiu’s bill. It may be a healthy debate. It will surely be a revealing one.

(Here’s a link to an article published by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Food and Law Center on this subject. Page 12 discusses the jumbled status of various state laws.)

About the Author

The author is a co-host at the restaurant recommendation web site, atLarrys.com You can read a full biography by clicking here.