This summer, scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) made a disturbing discovery: hundreds of vials of deadly pathogens, packed in cardboard boxes and stashed in a little-used storage room on the agency’s Bethesda campus. Live samples of smallpox, dengue and other disease-causing microbes had apparently been put in storage over a half-century ago and then, inexplicably, forgotten.
It was an embarrassing and potentially catastrophic oversight, and like most Americans, I was shocked by this serious lapse on the part of our premier federal health organization. That is, until last week, when I cleaned out my refrigerator and made a few disturbing discoveries of my own.
Before you jump to any conclusions, let me be clear that I am meticulous when it comes to food safety. You will never find moldy leftovers or rotten vegetables in my refrigerator. I go to the grocery store every Monday morning and throw out anything that looks questionable on Sunday night. I refuse to buy in bulk, because I can’t stand it when the shelves are too crowded and I can’t see what I’ve got. The former business major in me refers to this as a Just-In-Time inventory strategy, and it has worked beautifully for more than two decades.
With one little exception…condiments.
You know, that bottle of Asian chili sauce that you buy for a certain recipe and then never use again? Or that jar of prepared horseradish that takes six months of steak dinners to go through? These are the things that gather on the shelves inside the door of my refrigerator and somehow manage to escape the weekly purge. Kind of like that lonely storage room at the NIH.
So, I was unloading groceries one Monday, when I realized that there was no more room on the shelves inside the door and decided it was time to sort things out. I won’t frighten you with all the gory details, but some of the highlights included: a bottle of sundried tomatoes with capers, dated November 2013; a bottle of coleslaw dressing (which I have no memory of buying), dated May 2013; and a bottle of lite salsa ranch dressing, dated February 2013. The grand prize winner was a bottle of oyster sauce, dated (brace yourself) May 2011 – more than three years past its expiration date.
During a congressional hearing, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Director Thomas Frieden blamed the smallpox mishandling on an “insufficient culture of safety” in his organization. In the case of my expired condiments, I think the fault lies in an insufficient culture of adventurous eating in my house. Yes, I may have been somewhat negligent in managing perishable goods, but in my defense, I was only trying to bring a little bit of variety to the dinner table.
There are currently about half a dozen meals that everyone in our family really likes and the truth is, they’re getting a little boring. (Sorry, spaghetti and meatballs, but I have to tell it like it is.) So I’m constantly on the lookout for new recipes and eagerly buying special ingredients with the hope that they will expand my short list of family favorites. However, many of these little bottles and jars have such specific uses that unless you become a really big fan of, say, Indian cuisine, you’ll never use them up before they expire.
So what’s a responsible home cook to do? I suppose I could always share those half-empty jars of pickled jalapenos or roasted red peppers with a neighbor. Sometime after I realize they’re not crowd pleasers, but before the expiration date would be ideal. Who knows? Perhaps this kind of exchange could eventually become a regular part of community yard sales or homeowners’ association meetings. In the meantime, there’s still a mysterious bottle of mango chutney lurking in my refrigerator with no expiration date whatsoever.
I’m thinking of bringing it to the NIH for analysis.