For reasons that still aren’t quite clear to me, I was given a single plastic-wrapped Twinkie at an office holiday party last year. All of my other coworkers got their own Twinkies too, and the whole gimmick had something to do with the apocalypse, I think. This was around the time that Twinkies and their snack cakes cousins were facing the dustbin of history in the wake of Hostess’ bankruptcy.
So naturally I saved it.
Contrary to the idea that Twinkies never die (or rot or mold or whatever), the crème filled tube of yellow cake only had an official shelf life of 26 days pre-bankruptcy. That’s up to 45 days now, thanks to the new Hostess Brands, which bought the bankrupt company earlier this year and is now shipping some frozen Twinkies in order to keep them fresh for longer.
That’s the key word in discussing expiration dates: “fresh.” A new report released by the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic yesterday, titled “The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America,” lays bare the illogical, patchwork of sometimes meaningless dating requirements for food products. Even the dates printed on milk, the heart of expired-food fear that lurks in the back of the fridge, hold little meaning.
Why? “That’s because the ‘expiration date’ is not an indicator of when you can eat your food; it’s an indicator of when the brand is willing to stand behind that food,” says NRDC’s Dana Gunders. The date is printed on a product “so that you can have the peak consumer experience with it. No one is pretending that you can’t eat that product after the date—that it’s bad, that it’s going to make you sick.”
The report suggests that confusion over dates adds significantly to America’s food waste problem. There’s no comprehensive reporting on how much of the $165 billion of food that goes to waste in the U.S. every year is due to “expired” foods being tossed. But a 2011 report by the food-waste-reduction group WRAP found “confusion over date labeling accounts for an estimated 20 percent of avoidable household food waste,” in the United Kingdom and Europe.
Writing specifically on the topic of canned goods, food scientist Harold McGee points out that, “Food technologists define shelf life not by how long it takes for food to become inedible, but how long it takes for a trained sensory panel to detect a ‘just noticeable difference’ between newly manufactured and stored cans.”
The same goes for potato chips losing their crunch, bread going stale, or a Twinkie gaining a distinctive chewiness after that month-and-half-ish window has passed. From a brand perspective, these foods have expired, but they’re still perfectly safe to eat.
“Bottom line is, from the outside it looks like there’s this rational, objective system—people believe its about safety—but the reality is that in the vast amount of states it’s up to the manufacturer if they put a date at all,” says Gunders.
My Twinkie is about nine months old now, and despite losing the gushy give it had last winter, looks exactly the same. I have long-term plans for it—which consist of just letting it sit, really—so I can’t comment on how it tastes. But McGee’s article on canned goods, which appeared in the food journal Lucky Peach, shows that in some cases, holding things past the sell-by date—years and years past—could hold a distinct culinary advantage. Following his distinction of the “just noticeable difference” that determines the expiration date, he writes, “There’s no consideration of whether the difference might be pleasant in its own way or even an improvement—it’s a defect by definition.”
Enter the wine-like world of vintage canned foods, where connoisseurs hold tins of fish, canned cheeses, even Spam, for years upon years. McGee references a passage in James H. Collins’ The Story of Canned Foods, published in 1924, about when a grocer, “put on a luncheon in which he served their contents side by side with those from new cans, and asked his guests to choose which version they preferred. Among the test foods were fourteen-year-old pea soup and beef stew, and twelve-year-old corned beef and pigs’ feet. The guests preferred the old cans ‘by an overwhelming majority.’ ” McGee’s own taste test of aged sardines and canned ham yielded similarly positive results.
Gunders says she doesn’t want to see a situation where Lays has to sell soggy potato chips or anything. But the NRDC is hoping to limit the waste misguided and unregulated dating is generating—either through federal regulation or internal reforms taken on by the food industry.
“I don’t blame them,” she says of manufacturers. “I don’t think they’re doing this intentionally. It’s more benign neglect.” She’s hoping companies will take it upon themselves to change the language, moving away from the negative implications of expiration and on to something more transparent. “We want them to say, ‘This is our stand-by-our-brand date,’ ” she says as a half-serious suggestion. But unless we all start holding canned fish for future years, it’s going to take some kind of change in dating-game logic to staunch this form of food waste.