I always like to pay tribute to some person who will be working over the Christmas holiday around this time of December, and today I am talking to someone very special to all of us, an unsung hero. Without the work of this one man, none of us would be safe. He is Fergus Callender. Good morning to you Mr Callender.
“Yes, I suppose I can accept that. It is a good morning so far, but I don’t think we should assume it is going to remain good beyond 11.34 today. And, of course, the afternoon continues to be a grey area.”
You, I believe, are the Government’s Senior Anticipatory Optimising Officer, which means, to put it in layman’s terms, that you are the man with the job of deciding all the best-before dates for the things we eat.”
“When I say that is correct, I mean it is correct until 17th June 2033 when I reach the age of retirement. I believe it will be a Thursday. As there is the possibility that I could be struck by a satellite dish blown over by the wind or might fall victim to the flu epidemic of 2020, it would be better to say that you can’t really assume that I will be the Government’s Senior Anticipatory Optimising Officer beyond, say, 9th February 2021.”
I see that you are surrounded right now by thousands of jars of grainy mustard. Are these what you will be working on over Christmas?
“Yes, they will all be individually ‘best-befored’, to use our jocular expression, in order to protect the public, so that we can tackle the traditional lemon curd influx on 3rd January.”
“Do you have a particular date in mind for them, Mr Callender?”
“It’s a matter of intuition, mostly. At the moment I am toying with 4th September 2013, but I’m also very drawn towards 9th October.”
What would happen if I ate some of this grainy mustard a day after its best-before date?
“Within about half an hour you would develop a mould-like grey-green rash, your limbs would swell up, your tongue would turn black, then you would writhe for 17 minutes before expiring.”
What if I ate some a fortnight after its best-before date?
“The writhing would be more extreme and the hallucinations more colourful.”
Can you explain the difference between a ‘best before’ date and a ‘use by’ date?
“If a product has a ‘use by’ date of 13th January, like this tin of asparagus soup here, it means that at midnight on 13th January it will explode in your store cupboard or on the supermarket shelf. With ‘best before’ you get the writhing, with ‘use by’ you get the explosion. We find that asparagus soup is particularly volatile. Then there’s the ‘sell-by’ date. If your tin of anchovies, for example, is still on the supermarket shelf after its ‘sell by’ date, it will form a chemical chain reaction with household items in the store, such as fabric conditioners and toilet cleansers, to form a cloud of choking fumes.”
What will your own special Christmas treat be this year?”
“I’ve always been fond of dates, so I’ve bought myself a lovely five-year desk diary.”
Do you have any children?
“I have a son, Horatio. He is due to reach the awkward age on 2nd April 2017. Probably at about 10.15 am.”
And on Christmas Day?
“It will be lovely. I’ll wear a paper hat while dating the grainy mustard. It’s the same paper hat I wore last Christmas and I’ve worked out that it would be safe to go on wearing it until 16th June 2014, or 16th June if I want to be daring. After the mustards, I might treat myself and assess a consignment of frozen meatballs. Then I’ll read my horoscope. It’ll be great, especially as I don’t expect this building to collapse until the second half of 2020.”
May I wish you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year, Mr Callender.
Coming up next …
I’m away on my Christmas holidays from 20 December until 4 January. I’ve scheduled some seasonal postings to keep your Christmas spirit topped up (RJG take note!).
- 21 December – Rudolf the bleeped reindeer
- 22 December – Even wise men make lists
- 23 December – Festive games for all the family
- 24 December – A list to end all lists
- 25 December – It’s still not too late to sign the Santa clause
- 01 January – 12 useful things for today
Happy Christmas to one and all, may your Yuletide be filled with warmth, happiness and good cheer.