Many consumers rely on the ‘best before’ date printed on food labels to decide whether to buy or eat a product. But experts say that these dates are not a reliable indicator of food safety, and that many foods can last much longer than the label suggests.
What does ‘best before’ mean?
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, ‘best before’ dates are not about food safety, but about food quality. They indicate when the food will be at its peak freshness, flavour, and nutritional value. They are not mandatory for most foods, except for those that have a shelf life of 90 days or less, such as milk, eggs, and meat.
However, ‘best before’ dates do not mean that the food will go bad or become unsafe to eat after that date. As long as the food has been stored properly and has not been contaminated, it can still be edible for weeks or months (and in some cases years) after the ‘best before’ date.
How to check if your food is still good
Experts say that the best way to determine if your food is still good is to use your senses and common sense. Look, smell, and taste the food before eating it, and check for signs of spoilage, such as mould, off-odours, slimy textures, or changes in colour.
Here are some general guidelines on how to check different types of foods:
- Non-perishables: Foods such as canned goods, dried pasta, rice, and spices can last for years if they remain unopened and stored in a cool, dry place. They may lose some of their flavour or nutritional value over time, but they will not be unsafe to eat. However, if the can is bulging, leaking, or rusted, or if the food has an abnormal smell or appearance, do not eat it.
- Dairy products: Foods such as milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter have a shorter shelf life and are more prone to spoilage. They should be kept refrigerated and consumed within a few days of opening. If they have mould, sour smell, or curdled texture, throw them away. Hard cheeses, such as cheddar or parmesan, can last longer and can be eaten after cutting off the mouldy parts.
- Meat and poultry: These foods are highly perishable and should be cooked and eaten within a few days of purchase, or frozen for later use. They should be stored in the coldest part of the fridge and wrapped tightly to prevent cross-contamination. If they have a foul smell, slimy texture, or change in colour, do not eat them.
- Eggs: Eggs can last for several weeks in the fridge, even after the ‘best before’ date. To test if an egg is still good, place it in a bowl of water. If it sinks, it is fresh. If it floats, it is old and should be discarded.
- Fruits and vegetables: These foods vary in their shelf life, depending on the type and how they are stored. Some fruits, such as apples, oranges, and bananas, can last for weeks at room temperature, while others, such as berries, grapes, and melons, should be refrigerated and eaten within a few days. Vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes, and onions, can last for months in a cool, dark place, while leafy greens, mushrooms, and tomatoes should be refrigerated and eaten within a week. If the fruits or vegetables have mould, bruises, soft spots, or rotten parts, cut them off or throw them away.
How to reduce food waste
Food waste is a major environmental and social problem, as millions of tonnes of edible food end up in landfills every year, while millions of people go hungry. Experts say that consumers can reduce food waste by following these tips:
- Plan ahead: Make a shopping list and buy only what you need. Check what you already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer before going to the store. Avoid impulse buying or overstocking.
- Store properly: Follow the storage instructions on the food labels and use containers or bags that seal well. Keep your fridge and freezer clean and organized, and rotate the items so that the oldest ones are used first. Freeze or preserve the foods that you will not eat soon.
- Use it up: Cook and eat the foods that are close to their ‘best before’ date or have signs of ripening. Use up the leftovers or store them for later. Be creative and use the parts of the food that are usually discarded, such as peels, stems, or bones. Compost the food scraps that cannot be eaten.