Stupid as we want to be

In expiration dates we trust

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

I always imagine that we, as humans have plumbed the depth of human stupidity and sheer obliviousness, but, for whatever reason, late summer reliably brings forth an ever-renewing harvest of humanity losing any bearings or connection with reality .

Who’s going to tell him?

In any normal era, this would earn a gold medal in the stupidity Olympics, but in 2022, it’s only a runner-up.

Jared Kushner firmly believes that he is part of “either the first generation to live forever, or the last generation that’s going to die”. (

This is the same Jared Kushner who became a Middle-East expert/advisor to our president after reading a few books on the subject.

Fun fact: the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 77 years old as of 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And we don’t need the CDC to tell us that everyone dies.

Expiration dates R us

Perhaps there’s a “nature or nurture” aspect to human stupidity.

What I mean is that human beings seem particularly good at creating systems that facilitate human brain laziness/incompetence (also known as stupidity).

You might also call this the intellectual equivalent of “learned helplessness”.

Expiration dates are the perfect example of how lazy/helpless/incompetent too many of us become.

Before the 1970s, “best by” or even “use by” or “sell by” tags or stamps on products did not exist.

For all of human history before then, the typical person could tell by looking or smelling (or sometimes by touching) whether a food item was beyond its prime – or was unsafe. Or was perfectly good.

Some things improve with age

Oddly enough, without going past its “best by” day, we would never have developed basic foods like yogurt or cheese. Or sauerkraut. Or pickles. Or bread. Or beer. Or wine. Or anything fermented.

Fermented foods are those that are left to sit and steep until the sugars and carbs that the food naturally contains interact with bacteria, yeast and microbes – most, if not all, are found in the atmosphere or surrounding environment.

Oddly enough, these foods which have passed their “fresh” dates are among the healthiest foods any of us could eat.

Some foods, like wines and cheeses, are improved by being “aged”.

The other day I was near the dairy case of a grocery store as a woman was talking to her husband as she was looking at a package of cheese. “I wonder what happens when the expiration dates passes?” she said.

I was tempted to respond by saying, “What would you expect to happen?”

But I was exercising a rare ability to keep my mouth shut.

But it was a good question, what we she expecting to happen?

There is nothing magical about those dates printed on the stray (and sometimes impossible to find) edges of products.

A chunk of cheese for example, can take months to “cure.” Over time, cheeses lose moisture and get harder as they (essentially) coagulate.

Hard cheeses like parmesan, aged cheddar or romano are grating cheeses, while semi-hard cheeses like gouda, and havarti can be sliced or grated within a few weeks. But it all takes time; possibly months or, for the harder cheeses, years.

So what does happen when the expiration dates passes for a package of cheese? Pretty much nothing.

It’s just another day, or month, in the life cycle of your cheese.

Other food items are a bit more perishable, but by some miracle of nature, they tend to let us know.

If you can’t tell when milk has gone sour, you are obviously not paying much attention to the details of your life. But then again, you might be in the mood for some sour milk.

We would not have pickles (or pickled anything) if someone long ago had not neglected a jug or bucket of cucumbers (or almost anything else) long past their apparent “best by” dates.

In several cultures across Europe and Asia, pickled eggs are a delicacy – the older the better.

You can see some recipes for pickling eggs here:

In short, expiration dates are not primarily for us consumers – they are for the manufacturers or shippers.

And “best by” means, ahem, that the product is freshest, and perhaps “best” by the posted dates.

But it can still be good for months, even years after that time stamp.

Dating, after all, is not required by US Federal law, with the exception of infant formula and baby foods.

For all other foods, except dairy products in some states, freshness dating is strictly voluntary on the part of manufacturers.

You can see an easy to read chart on dates and product longevity here:

Old drugs

And if you thought that was confusing, drug expiration dates are even more indecipherable.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the request of the military, did a study of drug effectiveness.

As you might guess, the military maintains a large and expensive stockpile of drugs, with the prospect of tossing out and replacing their drugs every few years.

They found that 90% of more than 100 drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, were perfectly good to use even 15 years after the expiration date.

Some drugs gain in potency while others lose a bit, but either way, it may take years.

Abe Lincoln once said that people are as happy as they decide to be.

The same might be said of stupid: we are as stupid as we decide, or allow ourselves to be.

From food to fashion choices to cyber-currencies, to political candidates, there are all kinds of opportunities for others to take advantage of our foolishness.

Getting in the habit of not being stupid might save us all a lot of money. And headaches.