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Past Its Prime: Do Expiration Dates Matter?

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A few months ago, while on a trip out of town, I received a panicked phone call from my boyfriend regarding the expiration date of our bacon. He had cooked himself breakfast, and only upon throwing away the package did he realize that the expiration date was a few weeks prior. I assured him that no, he probably wouldn’t get sick and die, since if it had been spoiled, he surely would have noticed a funky smell or a suspicious color right away. Lo and behold, he survived to eat bacon another day. 


Nowadays, it seems like just about everything is printed with a scary-looking expiration date, from fresh meat to the bottle of aspirin sitting on my desk. Is it really so important to pay attention to these dates? What’s the worst that could happen? 


Dating Quality vs. Safety
Food manufacturers label their products voluntarily. Although some states have labeling laws, there’s no federal requirement to list an expiration date. Some companies list “sell by” dates, which indicate when retailers should pull the items from shelves, and some list “use by” dates, which tell consumers how long to expect the item to stay at peak quality. 


The Food and Drug Administration does require labeling for prescription and over-the-counter drugs. In general, the expiration dates on drugs are to assure customers that the products will stay chemically stable and retain their potency. Manufacturers are usually willing to stand by their products for about two years. After that, they make no claims that the chemical structure hasn’t disintegrated, even though most common drugs continue to be effective after their expiration date. A study conducted by the FDA found that about 90 percent of one hundred prescription and over-the-counter drugs were perfectly fine up to fifteen years after their date. 


Across the board, expiration dates are meant to address a product’s freshness and efficacy, not its safety. Food that’s past its date may be stinky or spoiled, but it probably won’t cause anything more than a stomachache. Although drugs do begin to degrade after a few years on the shelf, they don’t necessarily become harmful; they just become ineffective. The FDA, along with food manufacturers, set expiration dates to give consumers an idea of the latest date they will guarantee its freshness, not to suggest that anything past its date is unusable or dangerous. 


Dates to Disregard
When it comes to most food, always trust your senses over what it says on the package, and don’t automatically throw something away based on its date. If items have been stored and wrapped properly, they can last longer than the date would have you believe. Milk and milk products like cream or half-and-half can last up to a week longer, and yogurt can last a few weeks or more before beginning to curdle or separate. Hard cheese can last for months even after opened, and even if it develops a moldy spot, cutting out the moldy area doesn’t affect the rest of the cheese. Eggs, especially, can last for weeks in the refrigerator. If your eggs are questionable, test them to see if they float. Canned goods and non-perishable items like flour and sugar can last almost indefinitely, as long as they’re stored properly. 


Most over-the-counter and some prescription drugs are safe to use past their expiration, and barring a rare complication, the worst-case scenario is that they simply won’t work well. Pain relievers, cold medicine, vitamins, and allergy pills don’t need to be thrown out right away. As long as they’ve been stored properly and show no signs of degradation, they’re probably safe to use. 


Dates to Keep
Even though most expiration dates are just a guideline, some are worth following more closely than others. Meat and fish tend to be highly perishable, and their printed expiration date is usually a good indication of when they’ll start to turn. If your medicine cabinet contains important prescriptions for management of a chronic disease, it’s worth making sure that those haven’t expired. Medications like insulin, nitroglycerin, tetracycline, and liquid antibiotics are more fragile and perishable, and those that have begun to degrade could be hazardous. 


Contact lenses and solution should always be thrown away at their expiration date. Even when lenses are sealed in their packages, the solution that keeps them sterile may begin to degrade, inviting bacteria and fungi. It’s not worth risking an eye infection, so it’s important to use fresh contacts and solution. Condoms, too, contain chemicals that can break down and become less effective. Throw out any that are past their date. 


Although most old lotions and soaps can last for a long time, sunscreens should be discarded after three years, or whenever they reach their printed expiration date. The active ingredient in sunscreens begins to degrade after time and it can lose its efficacy, possibly resulting in a severe burn. It may seem crazy that bottled water would even have an expiration date, but it’s a date to pay attention to. Eventually, plastic bottles can begin to break down, leaching chemicals into the water. Be wary of water that’s been in a bottle for several years, because it could have developed a musty, chemical taste or have high levels of BPA


Go with Your Gut
Due to variations in how products are shipped and stored, sometimes things go bad even before their date. Any product can become tainted due to fluctuations in temperature or because of packaging or manufacturing defects. If a food product has curdled, begun to smell, changed colors, developed a film, or looks otherwise suspicious, it’s better to toss it out. Canned goods are usually safe, but any cans that are bulging, leaking, or emitting an odor should always be discarded. The same goes for drugs—don’t take any pills that have become powdery or smell funny, and don’t ingest any liquids that have turned cloudy or separated. 


Expiration dates aren’t just gimmicks to make you buy more. They’re a reflection of the fact that most products don’t last forever. Although they’re not set in stone, they can be a good guideline, but when deciding whether something is edible, usable, or clearly past its prime, use all of your senses, as well as your best judgment.

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