Sell-By Dates - The Great Rip-Off

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I bought some cheese the other day.  It was reduced in price because it was on its sell-by date.  When I got it home Our Gert said, “That’s no good; it’s out of date tomorrow.”

How does that work?  The bloody stuff had been maturing for two years!

I told her about the time I was a student and had a summer job at Fine Fare – the distribution centre, not the store.  I worked in the Cheese Department. 

We received cheeses in 40lb blocks, cut them up into small pieces, cellophane-wrapped them and despatched them to the supermarkets.  The first job each morning was to scrape off the mould on the outside of each block which had formed as a rotting crust.  (We had purpose-designed scrapers for the job which, I expect, are still in use.)

The point is this; my mother and grandmother never needed sell-by dates.  They sniffed at it and tasted it; and if it was off they chucked it.

So what exactly is the purpose of the sell-by date?  Protagonists (the supermarkets) will tell you that they’re a Health & Safety tool designed to enable them to rigorously defend the nation’s health.  They won’t tell you that they love sell-by/best before/used by dates because they love in-built obsolescence.  They want you to chuck the stuff so you have to buy some more!

They’re still finding tins of corned beef in the hulls of ships sunk in the Second World War that’s good enough for pet food.  There are barrels of eau-de-vie at Remy Martin distillery at Cognac dated 1783.  If Tesco had their way they’d have poured them down the sink before the French Revolution.

In any event, I reckon with cheese specifically the stated sell-by date is best interpreted as a "not-worth-eating-before” date.

So that’s it.  Can’t stop any longer – I’ve got to get to the supermarkets to buy unsold Christmas puddings for next year before they’ve all gone. 

◄ I Blame The Scapegoats

Mr Gabardine Man - Part 2 ►


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Sun 6th Jan 2013 13:48

I suppose some of this may have something to do with the litigation culture that seems to be taking off in this country.

By putting these dates on they are also covering their backs. I don't suppose 'scratch and sniff' written on the back of a packet would really cut it in court...

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Ledger de la Bald

Sun 6th Jan 2013 09:22

Well said John-our parents and grandparents would ask us why we didn't have the sense we were born with if they knew the rules & regulations that attempt to govern what we eat.

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John Coopey

Sat 5th Jan 2013 19:02

Hello MC,
Thankyou for your thoughts on "Sell-By Dates". I've worked in my time in a number of food factories so I have seen the care that goes into keeping food safe. But I can't help suspect that supermarkets enjoy the prospect of us having to chuck stuff so we have to replace it.
How long before there's a "Discard Date" on clothing?

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Yvonne Brunton

Thu 3rd Jan 2013 21:22

I love sell-by dates. It means I can buy loads of food at reduced prices, eat it now, freeze it or as you say - they didn't have sell by dates when we were young (!!) and we are still here - just look and sniff - use your common sense - because, of course, The Government hadn't cornered the market in that resource in Grandma's day. Strange that they commandeered it rather than taxing it though!
And a Happy New Year to you .

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Dave Bradley

Tue 1st Jan 2013 22:45

Sell-by date haiku

No smell of decay -
Good grub - there's no harm in it.
Get it down yer neck!

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Tue 1st Jan 2013 18:41

Fascinating read - I so agree. It's ironic that I should read this now. You've made me feel a lot better about the 3 chickens I now have roasting in the oven! I bought them from the butchers counter at Asda and they had a best before Sunday date on. They smelt ok though - so I decided to risk it. I can't remember the last time I ever had a stomach upset - or my kids. There's a lot to be said for toughening yourself up to bacteria anyway - sheesh when I think back to how we lived as kids :) Antispetic disinfectant sprays might make a good poetry fodder also!

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M.C. Newberry

Tue 1st Jan 2013 16:38

Say cheese! A good point, well made. I've often wondered about these dates and just how much stuff is needlessly dumped by folk who worry that going beyond the dates is inviting food poisoning. And who wants that?! Certainly, I see the thinking behind the idea. Big concerns need to keep a tab on the range of stuff they sell and wouldn't be too keen on being accused of selling tainted food. I guess the secret is choosing the type of food that is least likely to be affected and hanging on to it in spite of the shown date. A calculated risk perhaps. I like bananas but can't recall seeing a sell-by date on any I've bought. But then their appearance gives the game away...unlike other stuff that hides its deterioration from sight(and sense of smell). Bon appetit!!

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