Archaeology in the communal refrigerator

If there’s one scary thing about working, it’s the common kitchen area. On each floor of the research tower where my lab is located, there is a small area at the end of the hall with a sink, coffee maker, refrigerator, and some cabinets. These areas are all too rarely cleaned out. Last week, for some reason, an intrepid lab rat decided that the refrigerator on my lab’s floor needed a cleaning. She found this:


So far, so what? Right? There’s nothing unusual there. Someone forgot their Slimfast. Then she turned over the can (click image for larger version):


Expiration date: July 2004. I love it.

The question is: Has this refrigerator not been cleaned out since 2004? Or has it been periodically cleaned out, with the person doing the cleaning neatly replacing the expired and increasingly ancient can of Slim-Fast right back where it was found?

I vote #2. I have to. #1 is too scary to contemplate, even though my office is not on the same floor as my lab. (Don’t get me started there…)

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

56 replies on “Archaeology in the communal refrigerator”

Finally! Clear, incontrovertible evidence that both strawberries and cream were still used in Slim-Fast after 2002. Take that, strawberries and cream injury deniers!

Taking Todd’s idea to it’s illogical conclusion, I’d contact the Slimfast company and insist on a refund. Or at least a replacement coupon!

We just had our small common fridge defrosted. It is one of the smaller, non frost-free varieties. This, aside from the periodic annoyance of frost has the benefit of having someone, not likely to care about hurting a forgetful owner’s feelings, clean it out. Orac’s old can holds nothing to the furry tupperware contents unearthed during this last defrosting. No pictures, sorry.

Do you think it’s someone else’s job to occasionally clean out the fridge? Surely you know enough about human nature to not expect that everyone will always remove their unwanted items and clean up even their tiniest spills.

(Sorry, your post brought out the Mom in me.)

The question is: Has this refrigerator not been cleaned out since 2004? Or has it been periodically cleaned out, with the person doing the cleaning neatly replacing the expired and increasingly ancient can of Slim-Fast right back where it was found?

For archeology questions, try asking Teh SciBorg’s own Dr Martin Rundkvist…

My vote is the refrigerator is actually an abandoned White Hole portal (connected to a Wormhole) from which various debris and junk from around the universe occasionally appears. That can may not be from this Earth, or was effectively teleported into the future, or…

Todd W., you win a cookie for that one.

(Please make sure your browser accepts cookies.)

Possibility 3,

Orac had this in the refrigerator of his old institution and no one ever noticed so he brought it with him to his new institution where people are slightly more observant.

When my fiance and I moved into our apartment (about 4 months ago), her father gave us a bunch of canned and boxed food to help us limit our spending (and to help clear out his own kitchen cabinets). About a week later, when we started to finish off the food we had, and started to dig into the store he gave us, we found that on average the food was about 4-6 years expired. The earliest I saw was a can expired in 2002, and the latest was a box which expired only a few months ago.

And I still haven’t had the opportunity to ask him why he would even bother to give us expired food.

Ah, yes. The refrigerators are one thing I decidedly do not miss about academia. I bet my department at MIT still has the premillenial pizza in the freezer.

Hmm, sounds like a false dichotomy there, Orac. There are many other possible explanations for this. For example it is entirely possible that the Slimfast can was purchased at the grocery store last week, and the purchaser simply did not check the expiry date.

Is says “beat if used by”. Does this mean “inedible” ?

Jake, want a taste and let us know??


I highly advise you never to step foot into an ambulance station and open the fridge. The resulting items you find would be right at home in a Biosafety Level 2 environment.

Once, I noticed our coffee pot in our dispatch center still had coffee in it, from what I thought was the night before, when I opened it to pour it out, I saw more like a petree dish. Apparantly bacteria like coffee as a growth medium, and this thing was teeming with them.

A couple of years ago, it occured to me that the O’Boy chocolate milk powder packet in my kitchen cupboard must be getting pretty old, as I was no longer consuming the stuff regularly. I was rather shocked, nonetheless, to discover that it had expired in, IIRC, 2005. This, note well, was a packet I’d seen almost every day during those years as I used other stuff in that cupboard.

At the ER I used to work in, I once cleaned out the fridge in the lounge. I tossed out yogurt cups that were out of expiry by as much as a year. And yes, also many a furry container of tupperware.

I[t] says “be[s]t if used by”. Does this mean “inedible” ?

Good question. In the UK(at least) packages usually(? or at least highly perishable stuff?) have two dates on them: A must-be-sold-by date and a should-be-consumed-by date. (That isn’t the exact words/names, which I can no longer recall.)

I’ve never seen that in the USA. And as I recall, the date on USAian goods differs from State-to-State, with some being the should-be-consumed-by and others being the must-be-sold-by. End result is that unless you’re certain what the date actually means, you should treat it as a should-be-consumed-by(and must-be-consumed-by is perhaps safer?).

blf@ 20: believe it or not, slim-fast is considered a non-perishable canned good and so must only have a “use by” date. Depressing, isn’t it ? that stuff is probably fit only to be fed to your next murder victim, but the language on the stamp might mislead someone into thinking it was perfectly safe.

I remember coffee cups that looked as they had been someone’s science project.

There are actually at least two further alternatives. Someone has a 2004 can of SlimFast at home that he/she recently brought in…or…some store is still carrying at least one can of2004 SlimFast on its shelves.

The imp in me now wants to save a can of Slim-Fast for a decade and then plant it in an unsuspecting office refrigerator.

Back in 2007 my husband’s grandma moved into assisted living. My mother in law cleaned out her kitchen cabinets and offered me some pots and pans and a few other items. Amongst them: some vanilla extract that had an expiry date of 1985. My husband’s grandmother had moved three times since 1985, taking this vanilla extract with her each time. She had cleaned out her cupboards umpteen times since 1985, opting each time to keep this bottle of vanilla extract. Her two daughters had cleaned out her cupboards umpteen times since then, opting each time to keep this bottle of vanilla extract. And when I pointed out the expiry date to my mother in law, she still – you guessed it – opted to keep this bottle of vanilla extract.

For a while I ran the coffee club at the office. Twice a year I would announce a refrigerator cleaning.

Got some GladWare and TupperWare and compost that way. (I also brought home coffee grounds and other compost).

Jarred–I’d guess that your fiance’s father didn’t look at the expiration dates, just passed along the stuff that he vaguely realized he’d had a while and probably wasn’t going to use.

It doesn’t help any that when one starts asking what those “best by” dates mean, the answers range from serious health issues, to notes that there might be fewer vitamins or it might taste funny, to “we have to put a date on it because it counts as food.” Sealed packages of sodium bicarbonate have “sell by” dates. My carton of salt, I’m glad to see, doesn’t: but it is stamped “made on [illegible].” I assume that’s a comment about the cardboard canister.

The fridge doesn’t matter. It’s the coffee supply that counts. Without a continuing supply of coffee, defense, medicine and law enforcement in North America would grind (pun intended) to a halt. Also, your readers should know that The Devil’s Medical Dictionary defines coffee as “a form of soft currency used to supplement the pay of medical students and trainees.”

it is entirely possible that the Slimfast can was purchased at the grocery store last week, and the purchaser simply did not check the expiry date.

Parsimony, the increasing prevalence of just-in-time inventory systems, and the dislike of grocery stores to retain products with old labels after new labelling comes out (for “facing” reasons), suggest this scenario is extremely unlikely.

If this was my work, the next day you’d have somebody complaining “who threw out my Slim-fast?”.

I’ve eaten yogurts several years past expiration date.
Old vanilla extract – good grief.

What percentage of people eating ok looking food past the expiration/sell by/use by date get sick from the food? Pretty small, I’d bet.


I routinely clean hard milk and green bacon out of my mother’s refrigerator (one effect of her stroke – she’s seems to be unable to figure out how much food she will realistically eat). She always protests “But I just bought that!” My standard response “It’s two months out of date. If you just bought it you need to start shopping someplace else.”

On the other hand my kids will find vanilla in an expired jar (but really vanilla is alcohol based – what could go bad? Maybe it will lose its potency but if it still smells like vanilla I’d use it). They know it’s because we reuse the jar, refilling it from the bulk supply at the food coop. Much cheaper that way.

Ah…slimfast. I had a box of the stuff sitting in the basement; I’d used 2-3 of them and then just stopped drinking it. Never really paid attention to the box after that. Until one day a few years ago when I decided to clean and organize the basement and threw out the slim-fast…with expiration dates of 1995 (yes, we had moved since that date, and moved the box with us. In my defense, we did move in 1996).

The funnier day was the day I decided to clean out the liquor cabinet. We had 3 (count’em, 3!) bottles of unopened Bailey’s Irish cream, all so old that they were solid. I also poured out several opened-and-never-touched-after-we-tasted-it bottles of various liquors, liquours, and mixers. (Why does ANYONE need 4 bottles of Ouzo?) By the time my husband got home from work, there were nearly 25 bottles of empty booze in the recycling bin. We always wondered what the garbage men must have thought on pick-up dat that week!

Untouched Dr. Pepper cans will break and erupt after a few years in the cabinet. Diced tomato cans will too. Tomato paste will break through the can and ooze out the bottom.

I don’t even want to discuss how I know this.

I see orac’s group subscribes to the same fridge cleaning method as we do here – open the door for 30 min, anything that hasn’t walked out on its own power is still good.
On the bright side, I unrolled an old tube of hydrocortisone this weekend and decided to toss it, exp 1/1999.


Yeah,but how do we know they took the thimerosol out of the Slim-Fast by 2004?Just because it says it wasn’t on the label then,doesn’t mean they weren’t using new labels,and stamping new dates on older cans.We know Slim-Fast was loaded with mercury before then,and we KNOW how it gets into the placenta!

Seriously,I go to a grocery store that still has cat food,and canned vegetables on the shelf,with 2008 expiration dates.

I remember coffee cups that looked as they had been someone’s science project.

One of those is probably mine.

When it comes to cleaning out old fridges, I’ve got one rule: take off, and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

One place I worked had an ironclad rule about the communal refrigerator: when a cleaning occurred, any food items that weren’t spoken for were thrown away. I liked that policy, despite having lost a couple of leftover lunches to it.

I’ll admit to taking a pretty laid-back approach to best-befores on preserved food (and on preserves I’ve made myself). If the packaging is sound inside and out, I’ll eat most things tinned, dried or sealed-bottled, no matter how old. I reached this conclusion after buying salt, sugar and vinegar for preserving with BBDs on them.

Use by dates (used in the UK for most perishable foods) are something I go with my judgement for. High-risk for contamination, or just excellent bacterial substrates, (including sliced and minced meat products, most liquid dips, wet starch foods etc.) I’m often fussier about than the printed dates (this probably comes from having an immunocompromised mother). Things like vegetables and eggs I’ll be willing to be flexible with if they’ve been well stored (I’ve successfully stored shop-bought squash from the autumn cheap-time through to the summer).

When I started grad school (1992). The guy whose desk I took pointed at a can of soup on the top of a bookshelf and said, “I don’t know whose soup that is. You can have it if you want.”

I examined the can, which proclaimed that it was the official soup of the 1984 Summer Olympics. The sell date was something like 1985-6. I kept that can lovingly in place until I graduated in 1998, with strict instructions to office mates that when I visit the office 20 years later, the can had better still be there.

We’ll see.

blf @20:
In the UK, we have a sell-by date, best-before date and use-by date.
The sell-by date is so that the shop knows when a product needs to be removed from display; the best-before date is for more perishable food that might have passed the peak of taste perfection. Neither means that the food is inedible or dangerous. Only the use-by date tells you when the food should be tossed.

Untouched Dr. Pepper cans will break and erupt after a few years in the cabinet. Diced tomato cans will too. Tomato paste will break through the can and ooze out the bottom.

I don’t even want to discuss how I know this.

We have a tacit agreement to never speak of the sauerkraut.

“The question is: Has this refrigerator not been cleaned out since 2004? Or has it been periodically cleaned out, with the person doing the cleaning neatly replacing the expired and increasingly ancient can of Slim-Fast right back where it was found?”

Could you smell it down the hall when someone opened the fridge? If yes, #1. If not, #2.

As the periodic cleaner of common fridges, I will leave behind anything that “looks” okay on the assumption that someone may eat it. In grad school, past-date means nothing.

I’d say one of the good side-effects of working in a lab is all the protective equipment, and cleaning supplies available that you don’t find in your average office. Goggle, gloves, lab coat, bottle of 70% ethanol? Bring it on!

The worst was the time in college I was “volunteered” to clean the dorm fridge. That fridge served 4 dorms. The freezer was so full that it no longer cooled correctly, so ice cream had melted and run down into the gaskets. We gave the dorm notice, begged the cleaning lady for extra supplies and threw everything away. It was horrific. I think the crisper was trying to talk to us when we poured in the bleach.

The next year I insisted that it be cleaned once a semester, rather than once a year.

We have a tacit agreement to never speak of the sauerkraut.

And, kids — do NOT even think of running that exploded sauerkraut down the garbage disposal. Cabbage fibers, properly aged, have a tensile strength superior to Kevlar.

The obvious application to body armor has been stymied by aesthetic factors.

We went through something like this with my mother’s recent marriage, cleaning out her husband’s cupboards. There were a few rusty cans, a good layer of dust over some things, but the worst culprit was a jar of beef bullion cubes that expired sometime in 1994.

Of course we had to do this when he wasn’t home, as he would’ve insisted it was still good and able to be used for something. Obviously not considering no use was found for it during the Clinton of Bush administrations. 😛

JustaTech made me think of a related topic no one has brought to the floor yet,old refrigerators,and freezers,that make everything taste or smell like freon.I go to several independent grocery stores,both mom and pop “American” type,one is the store with the aforementioned expired canned goods,as well as Mexican/Central American,Vietnamese/Laotion stores,where this is a big problem.The owner is too much of a cheapskate to buy these new,so they buy old ones on their last legs,sometimes two a year.Every few months they have to throw out all the food in one,as the food is all inedible for just this reason.

Look, I know 20 year old vanilla extract won’t kill you – but I was always under the impression that it turned to pretty much pure alcohol after a while, so surely it wouldn’t actually add anything to your cooking either. What really got me was that so many people had looked at it and made the decision to keep it, over such a long period of time.

Reminds me a story of a friend. She started as an undergrad in some natural sciencey field and found a box in one of the lab fridges, undated, saying Don’t throw away, that contained a frost-dessicated rat. She asked around, nobody knew what was the purpose so she put it back. Being somewhat OCD-ish, she finally threw the dried up rat when doing her Ph. D. and apparently, the world didn’t collapse, nor did anyone scream that their lifetime research was ruined.

And don’t take me on our office fridge. The last huge cleanup happened around half a year ago due to life starting inventing fire there, I think, and the only thing that looked sane was some corticosteroid ointment left behind by a colleague who left in 2005.

A propos of coffee as a good medium for bacterial growth, I used to put my cup behind the flat monitor, then I did something, grumbled that I lost my coffee… well, after a week or so, there are those neat green-gray fuzzy islands. I’ll ask some microbiologist what these are, could be a great theme at some party, after we’re done with the aesthetic qualities of cat skulls or some such.

A propos of explosions, my father once got a five litre bottle of unpasteurised beer. Since he may drink a glass of beer in a week, he thought that it should be opened when there’s some company. One day, beer exploded, creating a deluge in the kitchen and surrounding areas – due to architectural creativity, kitchen is two stairs up from other spaces. There was also a considerable amount of glass shrapnel. Since then, my family strictly adheres to wine.

A semi-relevant story:

I “inherited” lab space that was vacated by a professor who had retired just before I started. His equipment and supplies were simply left in place and I moved in around and among them as best I could. One of the items left behind was a (working) -80 degree freezer with about 10 cm of frost included at no extra charge. Partly imbedded in said frost – on the bottom shelf – were two nondescript cardboard boxes.

Well, after about six months, I had finally reached the point where I had time to defrost the freezer and remove various odds and ends, including a few old bottles of frozen cell culture media that had expired when Reagan was still president.

The two cardboard boxes, however, were more of a mystery: they contained twenty-six frozen whole fish. From the tags and packing, it seemed clear that they were specimens of some sort, but the labels had become unreadable from long exposure to frost.

Since the previous occupant of the lab – who had been there since the 1970’s – had spent his life researching gene expression in skin cells and melanoma, it seemed unlikely that these were his specimens. I asked around the groups researching fish and other macrofauna and nobody claimed ownership. I finally bagged them up and removed them to the dumpster. This was in 2005.

Last year, the previous occupant of my lab (who did not go the “emeritus” route but was able to actually retire) stopped by and I asked him about the fish. Apparently, they had been in an older freezer when he took over the lab space and he had dutifully saved them through three freezer replacements. He seemed to recall that the labels had dates from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s before they had faded into illegibility.

I guess that whoever collected the fish isn’t coming back for them.


I’ve got a jar of cloves that I “inherited” from my mother. The expiration date is about a month before I was born – October 1984. I also have bottles of rum- and almond drops from the early nineties, and they were fine the last time I used them (as far as I know – they didn’t kill me and the cakes I made tasted quite rummy/almondy).

Coffee is excellent breeding ground for mould. Last summer I noticed that my Senseo’s drip-catcher would sport lovely green islands after two days.

My son had a spectacular fifth-grade teacher. One of the wonderful things about her classroom was her animal collection: the usual little mammals, plus two snakes, a few lizards, and some others. The kids got to take turns feeding them, of course. The first week my son came home with his week for feeding the snakes, he talked about the frozen mice that had to be warmed up in the microwave.

“Wait” I blurted out, “you don’t mean you use the class microwave to heat those mice?”

“Oh no,” he replied, “Ms. **** wouldn’t like that. She has us use the microwave in the teachers’ lounge.”

Not quite a refrigerator story, but one that will stay with me for a long time.

Military Experience:

While the content of refrigerators guarded in the clinics of our uniformed services are may be sources for Ft. Detrick experiments, I have observed one Public Health Refrigerator Nazi (PHRN) who would confiscate all contents not labeled with a name and date at the end of each day. Anything left in the sink at the end of the day disappeared.

These draconian measures eventually trained staff, but when the PHRN transfered out I am told behaviors extinguished rapidly. I also think that several large cartons of coffee mugs and spoons left with the PHRN.

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