Know the Code – the Truth about Product Expiration Dates

Ever since we decided to start this blog, I’ve been looking forward to writing about code dates, because it is the subject of family humor.

There’s a running joke about buttermilk – what does buttermilk turn into when it spoils?  My husband Brad fondly remembers his father making himself a sandwich in the dark out of bread with enough mold to supply the Navy with penicillin for a decade.  Then there is my 70+ year-old stepmother who never worried about code dates because she kept cookies and crackers in the freezer.   She would serve us from the same box every time we visited, even years apart.

It’s even part of the humor in Down Periscope, one of our favorite comedies:

Pascal: “Buckman, this can has been on the Stingray since Korea!”

Buckman: “What’s the matter sir, it still tastes like creamed corn?”

Pascal: “Except it’s deviled HAM!!”

Throughout my marketing career I simply accepted code dates on packages as a given.  All food spoils eventually, except for honey – did you know that?  You might know “code date” as the “product expiration”, “freshness”, “best by”, “use by”, “sell by”, or “good through” date.   By whatever name, the code date gives you information to know whether a product is safe to use.  We say a product is “in code” or “past code”.  Packages that are near the code date are called “close code”.

Code dates weren’t as widespread back when I was a child, and our pantry was probably similar to Buckman’s galley.  Mom never tossed cans of food unless they started to wobble.

These are great stories, but this blog needs facts.  While Brad watched Down Periscope for the 31st time (twice was enough for me, honestly), I took to the Food & Drug Administration website for details on their code date rules.

Guess what I found?  Almost nothing.  The federal government doesn’t require code dates on food, except for infant formula.  There are about 20 states that require code dates on various products, mostly meat, egg, and dairy, but there’s no uniform national standards.

In the absence of government requirements, why are dates stamped onto products?  I can understand having a code date on mayonnaise, which is made from raw eggs, but why are there dates on pickles?  Are manufacturers really concerned about our safety, or are they overly worried about liability?  I’ve heard doctors privately laugh at code dates on aspirin and other stable, non-living chemicals. But I have also heard a doctor say that code dates on sunscreen are critical.

Either way, code dates mostly seem to exist for the manufacturer’s benefit.  The cynic in me thinks that when you throw out a product due to passing the code date, you tend to replace it with another of the same brand, which increases the manufacturer’s sales and profits.

So before you start throwing out half of your stockpile, keep in mind the manufacturer’s vested interested in printing that code date.   We’ll talk more about code dates soon.

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