January 16, 2011

Expiration dates


On New Year's Eve, I pulled a container of whipped topping from the freezer and saw that it said that if it was frozen, I should use it by December 21. I was ten days overdue! Should I use it, or not? A few days earlier, I'd found a can of sliced mushrooms that said it was "best" by October 3. Oops! Should I use them or not? If it wasn't "best" was it still edible? It came all the way from China, so I thought not.

I prefer dealing with fresh produce because it's pretty easy to tell if a head of lettuce or an apple is too old to be usable, or a carton of milk or cottage cheese. But canned, frozen and packaged goods are something else. I really hate to waste the product, but when I read the expiration date of something that's lingered too long in cupboard or freezer I worry whether, if I use the product, I'll be advancing my own expiration date.

How long is too long? That's the question, isn't it? Not only in food safety, but in life, love, professional football careers, reality TV shows, Royal Dynasties and living in a hospital bed attached to tubes and a respirator. Serious questions demand sober and thoughtful answers. I can in good conscience reluctantly throw away outdated food, but getting rid of out dated ideas has proved much more difficult for me and for many different societies over time.

Meanwhile, on a less philosophical level, we do have the current South Dakota Legislative Session to think about, and it does have a definite expiration date. That date is March 28th. It has a shelf life of 38 days and it has many things to accomplish during that time. The United States Congress, which also recently began its countdown to expiration, has two years before it turns sour, or so we hope.

At this point, we really don't know what the situation will be by time these governmental expiration dates arrive and so far as I know, there's no guarantee of quality or purity of product. It would be kind of nice to have some agency like those protecting us from poisonous food or dangerous products to examine various bills and call for those that are frivolous, poorly conceived, or based on a personal agenda to be voluntarily recalled. The Legislature wastes a lot of time dealing with bills that should never have been filed in the first place.

We know that in our state government there are expiration dates called term limits and there has been some argument about whether these are good for our democracy or not. Theoretically, term limits encourage more people to run for office to be involved in our government, but in practice when somebody's term is up in the House he or she runs for the Senate, or vice versa. And we've recently seen that when one Constitutional Officer is term-limited, he can just get  appointed to another office, so government in Pierre becomes a game of musical chairs for those already in the game.

This year we saw again that elections serve as term limits in some cases and it can be said that this is the best kind of term limitation. Some years ago, South Dakota wanted to put term limits on our Congressional representatives but this was seen as unconstitutional. In fact, the ballot box has proved to be a pretty good substitute for any term limiting law.

On the whole, I think that if we need expiration dates on anything, it's political campaigns because shortening them would reduce the influence of money. If we can't get that, maybe we in the electorate should make it clear that our patience and tolerance for outrageous lies, accusations and distortions does have an expiration date. And that's today.   If we make that clear, it might improve the quality of the product. And it's certainly something we aren't going to import from China.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at collins1@rushmore.com          

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