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Yesterday, in my “Eye-Opener” commentary, I took note of a study saying that more than three quarters of Americans don’t understand expiration dates. And I wrote:

I agree. The dates are confusing.

But that’s the industry’s fault, not consumers’.

What, exactly, should consumers do? The dates are on the products, the language is vague, and the impression certainly is left that once a date has passed, consumers should toss the stuff out and buy new stuff. (Of course, that does have its advantages for retailers, who get to sell more stuff.)

Here’s an idea.

Food packaging should mean what it says, and say what it means. Transparency and clarity ought to have the highest priority. When the industry avoids specificity, it doesn’t do shoppers any favors...and doesn’t help itself either.

Trust is best engendered when information is complete, comprehensive, and contextual. And trust ought to be the ultimate goal for marketers ... To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is not in our shoppers but in ourselves.

Lots of response to this one.

One MNB user wrote:

I don’t know how many times I’ve explained to people that the sell-by date on eggs is just that -- a sell-by date. Eggs are often still fresh for weeks beyond that date when refrigerated because they are so perfectly sealed in their own little packages – their shells. The way to check if you aren’t sure is to put an egg in a glass half-full of water. If it stays horizontal, it’s fine. If it stands on end, it’s getting a little old and should be used sooner rather than later. If it floats, it’s done…chuck it.

Expecting customers to conduct such a test on old eggs strikes me as silly. Maybe packages should just have “sell by” and “use by” dates? Or maybe just “use by”?

The point is that we need to be clear and concise, and not leave room for tests involving half-glasses of water.
Another MNB user wrote:

Really, the fault is that for many, perhaps even most foods, the "expiration date" is both a subjective measure, and also depends on storage conditions.  Even for a relatively perishable food such as refrigerated pasteurized milk, determining the expiration date is difficult.  While pasteurization destroys pathogenic bacteria, it is not sterile.  Bacterial activity gradually sours the milk.  Some people are more sensitive to that taste.  I am not at all sensitive to slightly sour milk and I will drink milk that my wife finds unacceptable.  The souring of milk is highly dependent on temperature.  If the milk was properly refrigerated during transportation, at the retailer, and in the home, it will be acceptable for at least several days past the date on the package.   Unopened cultured dairy products such as yogurt and sour cream are generally fine for a long time after the labeled date.  .As a general rule most foods with any significant water or oil content (foods that usually say "refrigerate after opening") will keep longer when refrigerated.  For example, I do not keep even unopened salad dressings or mayonnaise in the pantry, they go in my basement refrigerator.

Acidic canned foods such as tomato products eventually eat through the can lining and acquire a metallic taste or produce gas that bulges the container.  But many foods, dry pasta being one example, will keep virtually forever.  Some canned goods just get unacceptably mushy after a couple of years.  Perhaps the best practice for many of these foods would be for the manufacturer to follow the lead of Anheuser Busch and label them with a "Born On" date.   

In the meantime I will continue to enjoy bargains such as the just "expired" 10 oz Colby cheese longhorns for $1.29 bought last week.  Bon appetit!

From another MNB user:

There is another aspect to the date code issue that you didn’t address:  liability.  Food manufacturers may create an end date – knowing full well that the product will last longer – in order to allow for consumers who build in their own potentially unsafe leeway (“it expired a year ago, but it must still good because it’s sealed”).  In a perfect world, all manufacturers would use the same system, guidelines, and format, and all consumers would understand and interpret date codes correctly.  But the food industry is hardly the perfect world.  Manufacturers must protect themselves against the litigious consumer who does not employ common sense.  Think a certain fast food chain who began printing “warning: contents may be hot” on coffee cups.

MNB user Liz McMann wrote:

So true that consumers are confused about these dates!  A couple of things to complicate matters and contribute to vagueness about expiration/use by/best-by date safety:

Many people do not make sure their refrigerators are set to a safe temperature range, causing food to spoil BEFORE marked dates.

Most of the dates refer to un-opened packages, but the real vagueness happens after the package is opened (i.e. is it sealed air-tight?  Is it in the fridge door or a meat drawer?)

I’m a trained food safety volunteer and still had to really study the USDA’s guide to these dates to get any sense out of them.

Many retailers do not train their staff to teach consumers about these date systems.  (We do).

MNB user George J. Denman wrote:

I agree that the industry could do a much better job in standardizing expiration dates. I just opened my cup of Activia yogurt and the expiration date is nothing more than a date printed on the top of the cup. My container of ice cream says “best by …. And my ½ gallon of milk says “Sell by….”
No wonder we are all confused...

We also continue to get emails about Michael Sansolo’s column earlier this week about the dubious advantages of “new and improved” products.

MNB user Craig Espelien wrote:

A couple of thoughts on the concept of “new and improved”.

Companies wrestle with two different issues when it comes to growing sales:
First – without “new”, consumers – to your point – have little need to upgrade or change.  Product failure or new market entrants do not get you those incremental growth numbers needed to keep your job so everyone tries to get to “next” without really thinking about is next necessary (I mean, seriously, do I really need a clock on my coffee pot?).  Where I think companies miss is the entire concept of how consumers shop and how they segment.  There are only four segments of consumers: Value, Mid-Price, Premium, and Luxury.
A new and improved “Good, Better, Best” model – with a lot of blurring between segments today (think Chevy, GM, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and the struggles GM has had with brand differentiation) consumers get confused about their true value desire – which is not a bad thing for the suppliers.  As manufacturers move up-market, they tend to abandon the lower price tiers as they try and get consumers to trade up (read Clayton Christenson’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma” for a great review of this phenomenon) – opening the door for new market entrants who see the value opportunity (sound familiar to the movement to extreme value in retailing today?).

Second, manufacturers have always struggled with how to handle the aging of the consumer – do they create a brand to follow a consumer group through its entire lifecycle or do they continuously reposition a brand or product for the next generation of user?

If you think about it, both Windows XP and razors suffer from both.  Do you really need much more than a good double edge razor?  Not sure I can tell that much difference if I shave daily in terms of comfort – I only use the more than two blade versions if I fail to practice proper grooming (Mr. Lazy in his home office) every day – otherwise, the enhancement in comfort relative to the cost is not a value to me – it has been over-engineered.  If, however, I am a new shaver, I may not know anything but the four or five blade piece – so my expectations are different (case in point, my wife brought some albums to the pre-school where she teaches and the kids asked where she got the giant CD’s).

Same story with XP – if you think about it, the computing power we have today far exceeds what was used to get to the moon and back – so do we really need MORE?  My guess is that most folks would be happy with more stability from their OS – and perhaps some speed.  My mother in law finally wants to start to use email – and thought she wanted a computer.  She did not think about the cost of the computer, what it could do or the access charge – she just wants to use email.  We had to introduce her to two different thought processes – a Netbook or using the library computer (my in-laws live in a senior co-op) for free.  Imagine if she tried to decipher Windows 7 on a new computer – simply way over-engineered for her needs.  For the younger generation with games and media, Windows 7 is not the last stop – there will be something faster and more stable in less than five years.

So – the brands are stuck – who do they cater to and how do they become satisfied with only replacement level consumption???
Thanks for the dialog – always enjoy it.

And another MNB user chimed in:

Would have to agree with you on the Mac vs. xp to windows 7.  We have windows 7 at work and I find it confusing when working with documents (pictures vs. plain English).  If I had my choice I would go back to XP.

After having the Mac at home with quick updates, etc., it’s not hard to get spoiled.  I don’t miss having to reload my operating system at least once a year (after having lost ALL my data), fighting with antivirus scans, notices, firewall conflicts **sigh** except for my HP notebook that I purposely ordered with XP before it was going to be unavailable.  I wish an Apple laptop was more affordable.  I think everyone would buy one – me first!

Razor blades – I have a favorite too and based on what you and others are saying I’d better start stashing, but I may need to take out a loan to do so.  Can anyone tell me why razor blades are so expensive???  The markup must be more than jewelry!

Speaking of new and improved, we took note yesterday of a Denver Business Journal report that Whole Foods is introducing a new “GreenBox” - an environmentally friendly pizza container - at more than two dozen stores in the Rocky Mountain region.

According to the story, “The GreenBox is made from recycled material and features a top that breaks down into pizza plates, eliminating the need for additional disposable plates. Also, the bottom of the box can be folded to become a compact storage container for leftover pizza, so plastic wrap and foil aren't needed.”

Which led one MNB user to write:

Little things are important.  GreenBox is a pizza box, plates, and leftover container is brilliant!  That little story on the green box just makes me want to shop there and might even make up for an average pie.  But I know Whole Foods doesn’t make average pie.  I can’t wait to try it.

Finally, a very nice note from MNB user Mark Raddant:

Thanks again for a rather amazing set of articles and comments.

I liked some of the quotes which you have offered lately, and here is one you haven’t passed on yet, but it has served as my mantra for years, and the older I get (and it comes from Dylan’s “Ballad of Easy Rider”, which I am old enough to have heard while seeing the movie of the same name, first run) the more I appreciate it:  “those not busy being born are busy dying”.  It works in business, life, and if you follow current thinking in human genetics, even in our genes.  (According to Brian Dawkins, once our bodies get the message we aren’t being daring, creative, vital, our bodies start to kill us off because we become a drain on our genome’s progress, not a contributor.)

Anyway, keep up the continually thought-provoking work.

It is a great sentiment, oft repeated.

That’s also the mantra from The Shawshank Redemption, one of our favorite movies - “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

And in Jimmy Buffett’s song, “Growing Older But Not Up,” he put it this way: “I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.”

It all works for me.

I figure that while I may have an expiration date, I should act like my “best by” date is always right now.
KC's View: