Tom Sutcliffe: Terror-struck by the 'best-before' date

Social Studies: The more fearful we become of food, the more likely it is that we'll toss the stuff we've bought and go back to buy some more
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The Independent Online

A confession of food sin, first of all. I made gravadlax a several weeks ago, encouraged by a recipe in a weekend magazine. It was easy. Unfortunately it was so easy that I forgot all about it until just a few days ago.

The recipe had suggested the fish was left to cure in the fridge for "between two and five days". I'd left it for at least a fortnight. So I unwrapped it cautiously – like someone dismantling an IED – and took a wary sniff, only to find that it smelt perfectly wholesome. That makes sense, I thought. It's a form of curing after all. But then a tutored doubt crept in. How could I be sure?

I turned to see the rest of the family looking on, with the kind of expression you might wear if you were watching someone dismantle an IED and I realised that even if I acted as sacrificial food-taster there was no way the resulting meal was going to be a relaxed and pleasurable affair. The bin got the gravadlax.

They eat far too well, bins – or at least they do in Britain where it is estimated that 8.3 million tonnes of edible food is thrown away every year, usually because – just like me – people don't trust their senses any more. Instead, they take directions from the best-before or use-by dates on the package, and religiously – the word isn't entirely inappropriate since we're talking about dietary law – jettison any offending goods. The problem being that most people end up confusing two very different kinds of advisory here.

The best-before date is technically known in as a "date of minimal durability". In other words it means that this food will be in tip-top condition until at least this date, provided that you haven't chosen to store it on top of a radiator or in the dog's bed. The word "best" is the critical thing. It may well remain "fine" for a considerable period after that time, then "mediocre but edible" for a bit longer and then "stop fussing, it isn't going to kill you" for even longer still. "Use by" is a bit more urgent – and means you shouldn't eat it "even if it looks and smells fine" (according to the Food Standards Agency).

Consumers have no interest at all in confusing these two kinds of warning, but producers obviously do. The more fearful we become of food and the more disinclined to trust our own common sense about it, the more likely it is that we'll toss the stuff we've already bought – just to be safe – and go back to buy some more. Which is why the Government is entirely right to be thinking of clarifying food labelling.

Reliable information about food safety is vital. But the question of whether we're going to enjoy what we eat is surely best left to our noses, our palates and our common sense. I wasted that gravadlax, in part at least, because our current food culture has taught us to be mistrustful of anything that doesn't give us written permission to eat it. Not fatal perhaps, but a little stomach turning all the same.

Mysteries of the word 'kettling'

What I'd like to know about kettling – quite apart from questions about its legality and effectiveness – is who first came up with the name? Obviously if you're a busy riot-control officer you need something a bit snappier than "Demonstration Containment Tactics" or whatever bland euphemism would have been the alternative. It's handy, too, to have a word that will cover both the resulting crush and the process of creating it.

And I think it's undeniable that "kettle" must be quite gratifying to deploy as a transitive verb – something about that collection of consonants being suggestive of the vigorous administration of discipline (think of "rattle", "settle" and "battle"). But did nobody stop to think that a kettle is designed to do one thing only – to take a tepid and broadly harmless substance and to bring it to boiling point?

Curiously the OED doesn't yet seem to have got round to the new meaning of kettle – though it does remind us that it can also be used to describe a mess or a muddle (as in "a fine kettle of fish"). Perhaps it was a victim who came up with this inadvertently pertinent bit of vocabulary. But if it was a police officer I think he or she might have subversive tendencies.

Fame isn't the aim for Martin Amis

"Why does Martin Amis hate his own country?" asks AN Wilson in the Daily Mail. To which one can only respond, "Why does AN Wilson hate Martin Amis so much?"

Wilson is beside himself with rage after reading what seems to be a broadly innocuous (though typically forthright) interview Amis gave to Le Nouvel Observateur.

"It is hard to think of any English novelist alive," Wilson writes, "who aimed so obviously to become a celebrity first and a writer second." It's a truly bizarre accusation.

So far as I know Amis has never shown any interest in going on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, scarcely ever turns up at red-carpet premieres, and has yet to offer an exclusive tour of his lovely home to Hello! magazine.

What he has done is to write, steadily, in good literary weather and bad. If it really is fame he wants, some friend should explain that there are far easier ways to get what he's after.