Read before 18th March 2010

Read before 18th March 2010

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In the bad old days before everything had a “best before” date printed on it you literally took your life into your hands when you opened a tin of something for dinner. It was quite exciting because if, for example, you bought a tin of ham you had no idea how long it had been in the tin. If it had been buried in a sunken ship on the seabed for thirty years the rust around the edges was a bit of a giveaway but mostly you hadn’t a clue when the pig had died and been tinned. Which meant that every meal was an adventure. Would you be able to go out and play on your bike in the afternoon or would you die of botulism or salmonella?

The same thing applied to things in jars although, being glass, it was a lot easier to tell if something in a glass jar had gone off. A thin white skin across the top of the strawberry jam suggested that it probably wouldn’t taste good on toast, unless you needed the penicillin. If there were no visible signs then we used what used to be known as olfactory judgement. In other words, we would sniff whatever was in the jar and decide whether to eat it. This is a pretty foolproof system. If it smells vile and makes you want to gag you don’t eat it. The opposite applies if you’re a dog where the rule is that the worse it smells and looks the more a dog will want to eat it. It’s rather like the French with their cheeses.

Now, thanks to the marvels of modern science, we no longer have to think because a date printed on the bottle tells us whether food is safe to eat. There are even best before dates printed on bottles of water. One day they are pure mountain spring in a plastic bottle and the next they are raw sewage. What amazes me though is how food knows when to go bad. Obviously super intelligent micro bacteria who can tell the time are introduced into food to make it go rotten. No, of course I’m not joking…..a scientist told me this. At midnight on the best before date they all sneeze and the food goes bad.

Let me give you an example. If you buy milk and its drink by date is 10th March it will be perfectly OK up until midnight on the 9th of March. By breakfast on 10th March it will smell sour and by the 12th you’ll be able to hold the bottle upside down without anything coming out. It’s that precise. In order to keep sales of groceries buoyant the retailers have come up with this ingenious plan of scaring us into eating what is in our pantry and then buying more. Or, worse, throwing away food that is past its best before date.

The thing is that it’s a gradual process so maybe they should introduce a sliding scale. Instead of best before dates we should have in descending order “not at its best, “a bit iffy”, “well past its best before”, “don’t say I didn’t warn you” and “give it to the dog”. That way we could reintroduce a bit of unpredictability into eating.

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