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May 2, 2014

STAWAR: Expiring minds want to know

—  It’s been said that we live in a “throw-away society.” In 1954, industrial designer Brooks Stevens coined the phrase “planned obsolescence,” which is when manufacturers intentionally design “… a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete … or no longer functional after a certain period of time.”

Cheap electrical appliances and disposable products such as e-cigarettes and contact lenses are everyday examples of this phenomena. Despite their negative environmental impact, I don’t see how parents ever survived without Pampers and I personally use about a landfill of paper towels each week.

Food is another product that obviously has a limited lifespan. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently reported that Americans throw out millions of pounds of perfectly edible food each year, due to confusion over what the dates stamped on them mean. At least 90 percent of Americans discard food prematurely and an Arizona study concluded that 50 percent of all edible food never gets eaten, costing more than $43 billion annually.

On WebMD, Star Lawrence writes: “ The only items required by federal law to be labeled for expiration are infant formula and some baby foods.” Hence, most of the dates on food packages have nothing to do with safety.

The term “expiration date” refers to the last day a product can be safely used, but it is seldom seen. Instead a “sell-by” date tells stores how long to display an item. This date is supposedly the last day the item is at its peak quality, even though it remains edible for some time thereafter.

“Best if used by” dates also refers only to food quality, not safety. U.S. Representative Nita Lowey, from New York has been trying for 14 years to get a bill passed in Congress to establish a meaningful food dating system.

The RealSimple.com website provides expiration recommendations for many common foodstuffs. For example, beer is estimated to last for about 4 months. Brown sugar lasts indefinitely when properly stored, as does honey. A Hershey bar is good for about a year after production; canned coffee two years; opened ketchup six months; mustard two years; and opened peanut butter six months.

Despite these guidelines, most of these items can still be eaten safely after the suggested limits, although taste, color or texture might degrade. Overall, there is little agreement on just how long most foods are safe.

I am rather inconsistent in my personal practices. My stepfather used to buy cases of out-of-date canned goods at auctions, and while I appreciated his thriftiness, I wouldn’t eat any Chung King Pepper Steak that was older than I was. I also no longer scoop mold off the top of jelly or taco sauce and then use the product, except in emergencies. I will still, however, cut mold off of a cheese block in a pinch.

I have been thinking about things that expire because the other day I was pulled over by the police due to an expired truck registration sticker. Unlike library cards and lifetime handgun permits, which never expire in Indiana, vehicles must be registered annually. I suppose the state created this form of planned obsolescence for the same reason private companies do — to make money.

A lot of people are driving around with expired stickers because the BMV no longer notifies drivers like they did in the past. I was fortunate because just a few days earlier I discovered that the registration for our boat, trailer and truck had all expired. I went online and was able to register everything at once. When I was pulled over, my new stickers had not yet arrived, although luckily I had the receipt.

Indiana driver’s licenses are generally good for six years. In Florida, my wife Diane inadvertently let her license lapse and then was stopped at a license checkpoint. I had to pick her up, since the officer would not let her drive with an expired license. She even had to go to court.

When we got there, it was packed with people. To her relief, the clerk asked all the people who had already renewed their driver’s licenses to hold them up, and charges were dismissed en masse.

I have always dreaded such expiration dates. When I started college, I bought an old van. It required an annual inspection, but always had trouble passing due to a tendency to burn oil.

The inspection sticker was red and one of my more artistic friends used crayons to make me a fake one (I was afraid to use it). I finally got a real sticker by filling the van’s crankcase with a thick oil additive right before I took it in for inspection. It passed, but a few weeks later, when the temperature dropped, the van refused to start due to the oil’s viscosity. I couldn’t use it until the spring thaw.

 I believe the growing number of expiration dates we face greatly contributes to the stress of modern life. Dealing with them can be expensive, inconvenient and time-consuming.

In addition to those previously mentioned, there are also passwords, professional, hunting and fishing licenses, prescriptions, subscriptions, and memberships. All this pressure can even have a detrimental effect on your health.

I suppose the best you can hope for is to not expire before your salad dressing.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the community mental health center in Jeffersonville. Reach him at tstawar@lifespr.com. His blog is at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

 

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