I went to use a sunscreen I hadn’t used for a while this week and first checked the expiry date which, I discovered, passed in 2012. We bought the sunscreen in Canada in 2010, and I like the smell which reminds me of that trip. I also like an Australian sunscreen, a tacky zinc-based one that attracts sand like glue attracts sparkles, because the smell makes me think of beach holidays and I figure something that greasy must be doing its job. When I saw the date on the Canadian sunscreen I checked the Australian one. It expired in 2009. I will have to throw both sunscreens away, I suppose.
This led me to existential questions. Since use-by dates became ubiquitous in the 1980s, there have been only two kinds of people in the world, those who follow them slavishly, and those who ignore them. I was an ignorer who married a use-by date nut and so we’ve had to compromise, or I’ve had to compromise because on use-by dates, my husband is not his gentle self. It’s true I do not like waste. I will conjure a week’s meals around a leftover half a cabbage (cabbage being a thing I particularly hate to throw away). My attitude to tomato paste, which seems to grow a beard of mould in a matter of hours, is that if you can scrape the mould off and see red, you can use the paste. Cheese also, can be resuscitated using this method. My husband calls many of the cherished things I store in the refrigerator science experiments. It’s not worth it, he will say, if I suggest that the fresh-smelling chicken breast whose expiry date was yesterday (well, actually, the chicken expired some time ago so it’s an afterlife we’re speaking of) will be okay for dinner. He tells me that the $20 to replace the chicken wouldn’t buy the Imodium to solve the problem it will create.
Australia’s food standards require packaged foods to be marked with “best before” or “use by” a date (with “baked on” or “baked for” acceptable on baked goods). The “best before” date is supposed to mark the “end of the period in which the package of food will retain any specific qualities for which claims have been made.” The “use-by” date is the date beyond which the “package of food should not be consumed for health and safety reasons.” From this point of view, my husband is right. When you take these dates with a grain of (preserving) salt, you are playing with your own use-by date. Sunscreens are also listed in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods. They must have an “expiry” date that’s three years from manufacture. If you ignore the expiry date, it may not bring forward your own expiry but the sunscreen may not do the job it’s supposed to do.
Advising consumers about the life of foods and other perishable items may have became necessary as we moved further away from the farm, but in the developed world we now throw out almost as much as we consume. Even our packet noodles have a use-by date, I discovered. Is there anything organic, let alone perishable, in noodles?
To use-by date nuts like my husband, I often say fresh milk, because fresh milk is the product that best usurps a “use-by” unilaterality. Milk has a use-by date, of course it does, and when we use our noses we know what it is. But there are too many variables between the cow and kitchen bench to name that date ahead of time. If you went with the date that’s on the carton, you’d be drinking some sour milk and throwing out plenty of fresh.
The Buddhists tell us that we will only be at peace when we face our own impermanence, our own “best-before” and “use-by” and “expiry” dates. We spend our time scratching in the dirt of life to leave our mark, to make ourselves immortal, missing meanwhile the trees and birdsong and gentle rain (and perfectly acceptable food) that are that life. I’ve never been any good at Buddhism. Maybe that’s why I prefer to ignore use-by dates, most especially my own.