March 1, 2015

Rector’s Reflection

One of my many magazines had an article on food packaging and some hints about what all those terms attached to the dates mean – use by, sell by, freeze by, best if used. My tried and true assessment of food freshness is if I open up the cottage cheese carton and the contents aren’t furry, it’s probably OK. But that’s not sophisticated enough for food retailers.

I have noticed that there seems to be a contest between some food brands to put the dates in (1) obscure places, with (2) ambiguous phrases, and (3) other numbers adjacent to what may or may not be a date. The article in my magazine gave me some insight. Here’s what I learned:

With the exception of baby food and infant formula, food expiration dates are really only guidelines to help you buy food at optimal freshness.

Food labeling is not required by federal law; it is voluntary – except for baby food and infant formula. Only about 20 states require it, and there is no consistent standard, and no U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation to define what the package is telling you.

It is not illegal for stores to sell products that are out of date.

“Sell by” labeling is more for the grocer than it is for the consumer. That’s the date merchants look at and what accounts for all those items in the “Ooops – we over-bought” bin.

“Use by” and “Best if used” are intended to assure consistent food quality. This type of dating provides guidance to the consumer, but evidently the guidelines are somewhat loose. Experts say that products can last longer than the “use by” date, depending on how the product is handled and stored (information the consumer has no idea about!). Some canned goods will keep for years if there haven’t been wide temperature fluctuations.

“Freeze by” means that you can freeze the product for a period of time after that date.

The reason I have included this foray into the realm of food labeling is because I was reading this article the day before I got the phone call that my friend in Greenwood, MS, had died. Total surprise. Total shock. Several days later I was asked to conduct Tolmon Morford’s funeral, a man I had not ever met, but the stories that were shared about him made me feel that I would have loved knowing him. And not long after that came Jerry Zimmerman’s death. Jerry had not been the picture of health, but it was still a huge surprise.

With these three funerals of intelligent, caring, funny, devoted people, I couldn’t help thinking about food labeling… especially the caution ‘best if used’. My friend Rebecca Lamb had myriad gifts. She was devoted to her family. She was active in many organizations. She used the gifts God had given her to spread love and comfort and good humor far beyond the Mississippi Delta. Tolmon Morford had taught at the dental school in Jackson and his funeral was attended by students across a span of ages who spoke about his skill and generosity as a teacher. Many indicated that he was responsible for their success. Jerry Zimmerman touched the lives of many students in his years of teaching. Online obituaries that allow for comments recorded the thoughts and prayers of former students who have been gone from his classroom for years.

Rebecca, Tolmon, and Jerry didn’t let their individual ways of nourishing those around them go to waste. They knew that what they had been given was ‘best if used.’ Food that never makes it out of a package won’t nourish anyone. Talent, whatever that talent may be, that never makes it out of an individual is squandered. What we have been given is ‘best if used.’ And as these past couple of weeks have shown, there is an expiration date.