Imagine you were chowing down on a nice salad, from one of those salads in a bag. You’ve decided not to be a fatass for at least one meal, and you’re almost glowing with the sort of pride that’s only reserved for vegans and guys who practically live in the gym. Congratulations, everyone hates you. But I digress.

So you’re munching on those nice greens, and all of a sudden your eye spots the plastic bag which, up until a few moments ago, contained said salad. And on the side of the bag, hidden near the bottom, you spy the expiry date, because it’s always located near the bottom and is written in a font so small that grandmothers need a magnifying glass to see it. And lo and behold, the that expiry date is from two days ago. Disgusted, you basically vomit in your mouth and throw the rest of the salad into the dog’s bowl.

This is the relationship most of North America has with food expiry dates. They’re looked at as the holy gospel of all things right, and you’d better not be caught eating food that’s happened to exist longer than the suggested amount of time. Because if you are, you’re probably going to die. Or at least spend a few days hunched over the crapper.

We think that food expiry dates are something that the government figures out after years of painstaking research and millions of dollars, that are put on packages for our safety, protecting us from the evils of Salmonella and E-Coli. We hate taxes and speed limits, but apparently we’re cool with BIG GUVMENT telling us when we can and can’t eat food. It all seems so anti-freedom that I’m surprised Alberta and Texas stand for it.

Except it’s all B.S. Food expiry dates are pretty much a myth.

Food expiry dates are monitored by the feds, but in pretty much the least obtrusive way possible. It’s law that your food item has to have a best before date on it, but that’s about it. Nobody has told food companies anything more than that. So what we have is big ol’ system of manufacturers doing whatever the hell they want.

For the most part, this self-policing system works pretty well. If you were a certain potato chip company (because we’ve never used that example before), you don’t want people cracking open bags of chips that smell like a hobo’s crotch. So you figure out how long a bag of chips lasts before things get nasty, and then slap an expiry date of a week or two before on it, just to be safe.

Related: I wrote about food inflation, and how companies are sneaky about it. It’s a weak segue, but it’ll do.

Yet there are huge discrepancies when it comes to expiry dates. One potato chip company has an 8 week shelf life, while their main competitor has a 13 week shelf life – and yes, this situation exists in the real world. What gives? It’s simple really. One company has higher fresh standards than the other. Maybe there are slight differences in the way the product is made, but for the most part it’s just different quality standards.

How much extra do you think the 8 week company throws out compared to the 13 week company? There’s obviously a huge difference, and that difference filters straight to the bottom line, especially in a business where every bag sold to stores comes with a “you’ll sell it by the expiry date” money back guarantee.

Not every product is a guaranteed sale, as it’s called in the business. Generally, anything the store orders themselves doesn’t qualify for any credit. That goes for most products in the store, actually, so stores regularly reduce these items a couple of days before expiry. They’d rather get 50 cents on the dollar for something than throw it out, so it’s a good move.

And for you, it’s a terrific buy.

The store where I shop regularly does this with their meat and produce. All you need to do with the meat is throw it in the freezer and use it as you prepare it. Anything frozen automatically doesn’t have an expiry date anymore, so as long as it doesn’t spend years in the freezer than you’re good to go. Or you can cook it and eat it right away. Hell, even if it’s a couple days past expiry doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad. Remember, expiry dates are more of a suggestion.

You can be even less cautious when it comes to processed food. I ate a bag of chips the other day that expired at the end of October. They were fine. I’ve drank expired Coke before too, and while it tastes a little flat, it didn’t cause my insides to rupture. It’s the same with cookies and crackers and all sorts of other junk food. Companies are extra cautious because the last thing they need is for some putz to go on the news and tell the world how Simpson brand saltines made them leak out of their ass for the better part of a week.

Food expiry dates aren’t the gospel you think they are. Take advantage of buying stuff that’s close to the best before date at a nice discount, and you’ll be rolling in nickels in no time. All you need is a little common sense. Just don’t ask the chip guy for free outdated chips. He hates that.


Tell everyone, yo!