I recently discovered a box of chicken tenders in my freezer, hidden underneath a container of very fuzzy cherry chocolate-chunk ice cream. I made a salad and put a few pieces of the microwaved tenders on top.
As I returned the chicken to the freezer, I spotted a little line on the package that said, “Best when eaten before August 2017.”
No doubt I had just poisoned myself and had minutes left to live. I looked in the fridge to see if there was some moldy sour cream or sour milk I could swallow to make me purge the deadly meal, but no such luck. I also remembered reading a story a while back that some chicken-packing company had recalled a few billion pounds of chicken parts because of a rare failure of their self-regulated inspection system. It seems their one part-time inspector had gone on his honeymoon or something.
The chicken tenders still tasted good despite being a year out of date. Even so, it’s probably best to write a note to Sue before she finds my cold, dead body on the kitchen floor.
While writing the third page of my note -- the part about the equitable distribution of my snow-globe collection -- I realized that not only was I still alive, I felt pretty good. The more I thought about it, I realized that if some deadly bacteria could live through years in my freezer and four minutes in the microwave, some rogue country would be using chicken tenders as a biological weapon. They’d just put the wrong “use by” date on some common food and kill us all.
How clever the wording is: “best used before,” not “spoiled rotten by” or “vile and disgusting by.” “Best used” doesn’t even imply that the product can’t be used after that date; we just assume it. Past that date? Better throw it out and buy some more. Why take a chance?
Now bottles of beer and soda have “best used by” dates on them so you’ll know they’re fresh. Yeah, you don’t want to show up at that tailgate party with stale beer. As if after eating four pounds of chili, nachos and chips, and taking a few nips from a hip flask, you could you possibly tell the difference.
The label on the soda I’m drinking right now says it contains potassium benzoate, calcium disodium EDTA and something called “Red 40.” Will any of that really spoil over time? It also has the words “pomegranate” and “antioxidant” prominently on the bottle. In small print on the back it says “Contains no juice.” Should I assume, then, that it also contains no antioxidants? After all, it didn’t say it “contained” pomegranate, it just had the word on the label.
Of course, the soda was only half the price of a real pomegranate, but considering it has absolutely no pomegranate in it, shouldn’t it be, say, one-tenth the price? How much should a beefsteak that “contains no beef” cost, or olive oil that “contains no olive products”?
Thinking about all this was giving me a headache, so I looked in the medicine cabinet for some over-the-counter relief. I noticed that all my prescriptions expired exactly one year after I got them. Really? So that medicine is perfect for 365 days, but it turns bad in the container on day 366? That’s quite a trick. And how long did it sit on the pharmacy shelf before they sold it to me? How long was it in the factory warehouse before it got sent to the pharmacy?
How long before they start putting ”best used by” dates on big purchases like cars and washing machines? If it works for frozen chicken, imagine how much they could make by getting you to toss out the old fridge. I’m not against the “best used by” idea for some things -- athletes, politicians and teenage pop stars come to mind -- but you should use your own common sense.
By the way, my out-of-date chicken tenders tasted, you guessed it, just like chicken.
(Contact Jim Mullen at email@example.com.)