Is it safe to eat expired food?
27 April 2014
"Eww, these tortillas are expired!"
I'm sure that's an exaggeration but that's the comment I heard in my head. The imaginary comment I heard was made by an imaginary astronaut. Well, not totally imaginary, it was a very real person doing very real space research, just not actually in space and probably just fine with the old tortillas.
Since coffee farming is so darned easy (yes, that's sarcasm) I need more to fill my time (occasionally I need a break) so I've been helping with the HI-SEAS project. What's HI-SEAS? Well, it has nothing to do with seas.
HI-SEAS is a study, coordinated by University of Hawaii, Cornell, NASA and others, that is simulating what it might be like to live and work on Mars. Did you know that it takes about seven months to get to Mars? That's just the trip there. A really fast round-trip, without stopping, is about 245 days. If you want to land on Mars, walk around a bit and maybe do some science or something, the trip turns into almost two years because you have to wait for Earth and Mars to line up again. A trip that far away, for that long, requires some careful planning.
I am fascinated by the subject and could go on extensively but this blog is about coffee, not Mars. The short version is that there are many, many challenges associated with sending humans to Mars. The HI-SEAS project is studying those challenges and maybe finding some solutions. To do this, a crew of six highly qualified people (we sometimes call them Astro-nots) are spending several months living in their simulated Mars habitat which is located on the slopes of Mauna Loa. Even though it's here in Hawaii, it's a surprisingly Mars-like location and very isolated.
Humans need to eat, constantly. It can be a challenge to buy a week's worth of groceries, imagine trying to plan and purchase several month's worth of groceries for six people. Now add in that it should be relatively shelf-stable so it can survive a trip to Mars. You pretty much have to give up things like fresh milk, fresh fruits and vegetable, or fresh anything.
As a Kona coffee farmer, I have a certain trait that make me uniquely qualified as a HI-SEAS volunteer. No, it's not the coffee, it's my pickup truck and trailer. Hauling all the supplies up that mountain to the research site is not a trivial task. On one trip I filled my truck and trailer to capacity but that was only a portion of the food. Yummy things like cans of dehydrated cheese and freeze dried peas.
Long sea voyages, over-winter stays in Antarctica, a backpacking trip in the mountains... the need for shelf-stable food isn't new. There are plenty of solutions, none of them ideal. Everything, even the military's MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat), has an expiration date. Some things stay fresh longer than others but nothing lasts forever.
In our modern world of grocery stores and conveniently packaged foods, we have become a bit spoiled. If that jug of milk is close to its expiration date, I push it aside and reach for a jug in the back. The thing is, food expiration dates are largely meaningless. There are an overwhelming number of laws and regulations about food products and food packaging. Almost none of them refer to expiration dates. Nor should they because the issue is not as simple as it seems. Let's consider a relatively straightforward product, one I have some experience with: coffee.
What expiration date should I put on a bag of my coffee? In other words, when is coffee considered expired? Is stale coffee expired? If that were the case then every can of pre-ground coffee would be expired hours after it is made. Sealing it in a can doesn't stop the coffee from going stale. Neither does vacuum packaging, nitrogen flushing or other fancy techniques. They can keep the product fresh longer but not forever. Luckily, even though we may not like it, us humans are quite capable of drinking slightly stale coffee.
Alton Brown, the host of the TV show "Good Eats" is often considered a food expert. According to Alton, coffee that is whole bean and sealed in a foil bag will stay fresh for three months. That's when the experts can start to tell the difference. Most of us can't tell the difference until much later. Whatever the case, being slightly stale is not the same as being expired.
Since product quality is a matter of personal opinion, let's instead focus on more practical matters. What does the customer want? That's always an important question to me. The "standard" for coffee (which is nothing but a vague convention) is to use an expiration date of six to nine months after roasting. The more current trend is to use a Roasted On date instead of an expiration date. Both conventions have issues.
Shouldn't the decision of what is acceptable quality be up to the consumer rather than the manufacturer? That's the idea behind the Roasted On date. Such a date allows the consumer to decide how old is too old. When we first started selling coffee in stores we used a Roasted On date because it seemed to make the most sense.
The problem is, believe it or not, Roasted On or Born On dates have proven to be extremely confusing and many grocery stores either won't allow or strongly discourage such dates. That's because most consumers are used to an Expiration Date. Even though I know better, I'm the same. When shopping I'm usually grumpy and in a hurry so I don't stop to thoroughly read the labels for every product I put in the cart. If the date I see isn't far, far in the future I either put the package back on the shelf or return it at the register. Indeed, when I ignored the store manager's advice and used Roasted On dates instead of expiration dates, my coffee was constantly returned as "expired" because the date had already passed. Grocery store cleaks aren't supposed to argue with or "educate" the customer. Instead the store happily refunds the money and passes the loss on to me, the producer. So you can understand why it didn't take me long to switch to more conventional expiration dates.
Now the question is, when does coffee expire? How old is too old? Kona Earth coffee is not cheap and when paying for such a premium product most consumers want it to be as fresh as possible. Therefore following Alton Brown's advice of a three-month expiration date seemed to make sense. The problem is that many of my competitors use an expiration date of six to nine months. If one bag of coffee says it expires in three months and another expires in nine months, which coffee is fresher? The three month bag looks like it has been sitting on the shelf for six months. Even if I just stocked the shelves with super-fresh coffee, it already looks old. Using a six month expiration date only helps until the competition uses nine months, or 12, 18, 24... There's no way for a consumer to know the actual age of a product.
There are other practical issues too. Milk in Hawaii, especially on the Big Island, is a perfect example. Much of the state's milk is shipped in from the mainland. Almost all of the Big Island's milk arrives on Oahu first then is sent over by barge. Sometimes the container with the milk is at the bottom of the stack, sometimes it's on the top of the stack. When on the top of the stack, that container can heat up in the unforgiving tropical sun, overwhelming the container's refrigeration and ruining the entire batch of milk even though it hasn't officially expired. In other words, storage and shipping can effect a product's quality more than age.
It's amazing how something as simple as an expiration date can turn into such a complicated mess. There will never be an ideal solution until every manufacturer agrees to switch and be totally honest about the quality of their product. As awesome as that might be, I doubt it will ever happen.
Before the days of grocery stores, pre-packaged food and expiration date stickers, humans used to know exactly where their food came from. With some food items, such as potato chips or chocolate Easter eggs, I don't really care where the food came from. All I care about is whether it tastes good and where can I get more? For other items, such as milk, fish or coffee, I tend to care a great deal about quality. For those items I'll spend more time determining the product's origins and freshness before putting it in my mouth.
Overall, I feel lucky to live in the times of grocery stores, fast food and the FDA. It's not perfect but it's better than starving, going all winter without vegetables or eating rotten meat because that's all you have. In the days before refrigerators and preservatives, toast was a common way to make stale bread palatable again. At least that's the story I've heard and it makes perfect sense to me. If I'm hungry and all I have is stale bread, toast with butter seems like an excellent choice.
Even though I'm not officially part of the HI-SEAS Mars research team, I have still learned something about sending humans to Mars. I've learned that it won't be as easy as I thought and I never thought it would be easy. Forget about gamma rays, solar flares, zero gravity and lack of oxygen, if we can't get past the expired tortillas, maybe we should send robots.
I'd love to visit Mars. I'm tempted to say that if I went, I'd be tough and wouldn't let some stale tortillas bother me. Then I think about how much I don't like little pieces of cooked carrots in my rice and I wonder if I really would be up to the challenge of 18 months in a capsule the size of a minivan, eating nothing but "shelf stable" food. If I do ever get the chance to go to Mars, I certainly hope someone has put some effort into thinking about the menu and packing some decent groceries before we leave. Which is exactly what I'm trying to do, at least in some very minor way, with the HI-SEAS project.