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Confession: I ate really old food

Common sense is called for, but "best by" is only a suggestion.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 30, 2009 11:55AM

This week I ate canned pumpkin that was three years past its expiration date, and I didn't die. Not even once.


Why risk it? Why not throw it out? Because I was feeling both frugal and contrary.


Last week a Smart Spending message board reader started a thread about an "out of code" food market in her neighborhood. The outlet specializes in food that's super-cheap because it has passed its sell-by date. Some of the items -- canned goods, coffee, cake mixes and the like -- were four or five months beyond their suggested dates.


Some people who responded were grossed out by the very idea. One called such marketing "a step above a Dumpster dive."


That's when I decided to bake some pie.


I’d been meaning to anyway, in order to use up a can of organic pumpkin whose top bore the stamp, "Best by 9/2006." It had gotten lost at the back of my daughter's cupboard and was one of the things she left at my place when she moved to Arizona.


The can looked fine: no suspicious lumps or leakage. The contents smelled normal. The result turned out quite nicely, thanks. The flavor was a little blander than the pies I usually make, but what could I expect three years after the pureed gourd had passed its peak?


Food expiration dates don't necessarily mean much. With dry or canned goods they generally indicate the tail-end of peak flavor. In fact, expiration dates are not required by federal law except on infant formula and some baby foods. (See this USDA fact sheet for more info.)

Please note: Common sense must be used. I wouldn't buy three-month-old milk unless it were clearly marked "yogurt," and any "manager's special" meat has to be red, not green. Nor would I buy canned food if the cans were rusted or bulging.


Do what works for you. Myself, I think people get a little too jumpy about things that are probably fine. For example, one message board reader noted a roommate who throws out the milk the day after its use-by date -- without checking to see if it really has gone bad. To me that seems like a potential waste of food.


Besides, it could be a lot worse. My former boss was raised mostly in the Alaska Bush because his parents were teachers. In the mid-1950s his family ate surplus powdered eggs from World War II, and they all lived. Just not happily, because powdered eggs aren't very good even when they're fresh.


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