My aunt Phoebe – bless her – is obsessed by sell-by dates. I say “bless her”, but really it is infuriating to watch her reverently examine the label on some perfectly edible packet of broccoli or bacon, and then ruthlessly consign it to the pedal bin. In vain do I remonstrate with her, pointing out that there are now two dates on each label – the “display until” and “use by” – and that while her Cheddar or chives may have passed the former they remain safely within the bounds of the latter. “Ooh,” she’ll say, shaking her snowy head. “You say that, but best be on the safe side . . .” Ker-chung!
What makes Phoebe’s behaviour all the more deranging is that she grew up on a farm in the 1930s, drinking unpasteurised milk fresh from the cow and eating meat that was hung until it was as high as a . . . well, you all know what rotten meat smells like. I say to Phoebe: “Revered Aunt, surely with your upbringing you’re well placed to make your own judgement about what’s fit for human consumption, and don’t need to be a passive tool of this shamefully wasteful system?”
And then I go on to explain how the entire food labelling protocol has evolved, not so much to guarantee the health of the consumer, but rather to maintain the stock control of the retailer. I point out that the “display by” label is there to ensure that perishable products are repeatedly moved to the front of the shelf, or rack, or the top of the gondola, so as to minimise costly wastage.
The correct way of regarding sell-by dates, therefore, is as a form of temporal marginal preference enacted by the business upon the individual. In order to maximise my turnover, the supermarket thinks to itself, I will choose him rather than her, because he has troubled to look at the display-by label and acted accordingly. William Burroughs observed of heroin that it was a unique kind of product, because rather than it being sold to people, people were sold to it. But Burroughs was being disingenuous, and his characterisation was only of an extreme – and quasi-outlawed – form of late-capitalist consumerism.
In truth, under conditions of optimal distribution, all people are sold to all products at both ends of the supply chain. Food producers are compelled to accept the enormous discounts imposed by the retailers’ de facto price cartels, while food consumers are driven to carry about sugar snap peas or sugar for a few days before discarding them. The entire point of the process is not to sustain the people, but to facilitate the viral spread of the products.
“Don’t patronise me, young man!” my aunt will invariably say once I reach this point in my analysis. “You forget that I grew up during the Great Depression – and I know a thing or two about getting by on very little.” When she reacts like this, I’ve pretty much achieved what I was after: middle-aged men invariably bait older people so that we can fraudulently earn the ascription “young”. But while Aunt Phoebe may have witnessed the terrible consequences of speculative fever (and what is this particular madness, if not the human correlate of an asset bubble?), it hasn’t stopped her falling victim to all the delusions perpetrated by 21st-century retailing.
So what, I hear you chide, should I do in order to avoid becoming the passive tool of some Parmesan? Are you saying I should wilfully ignore sell-by dates? Or that I should buy only stuff I find in the cut-price bin? To which my reply is: neither. On the contrary, what we should all do is only buy the stuff that’s at the back of the shelf, the rack, or the bottom of the gondola. This simple act, if undertaken by the masses, will completely banjax the system – in a matter of days the supermarkets’ stock-control systems will break down and they’ll be chock-full of rotting food.
The “ker-chung!” of a cosmic pedal bin will awake us zombies from our merchandising fugue. No longer will we totter along the aisles, brainlessly checking sell-by dates. Within a matter of weeks, wholesale breakdown will have happened and the hegemony of the products will have collapsed. I like to think that I’ll be at Aunt Phoebe’s shoulder on that magnificent day when, once more, she finds herself standing in a street market, contemplating a rotten mangel-wurzel and jingling a few heavy copper coins in her palsied hand.