WHEN IS FOOD SAFE? – EXPLORING ‘BEST BEFORE’ DATES
Have you ever been completely confused over the expiry dates on the food we buy? There is the ‘sell by’ date, the ‘use by’ date, the ‘best before’ date…how can we ensure that the food we’re eating is safe and that we are not throwing out perfectly good food just because of the date on the box/tin?
On average, we in Ireland are throwing away 1/3 of the food we buy. See Food Matters. Some of this is because of wastage on the plate and some of this is because the food has gone off. However, some of this is because we are throwing out perfectly good produce based on the expiry date printed on the lid. Our parents and grandparents never did this. They would use ‘the smell/taste’ test before throwing anything out. This wasn’t a perfect science and I’m sure that some people got sick. Nevertheless, this ‘smell/sniff’ test can supplement the current expiry date system.
Best before or Best by Dates: These dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods. These dates are only advisory and refer to the quality of the product, in contrast to use by dates, which indicate that the product is no longer safe to consume after the specified date.
Use by Dates: Generally, foods that have a use by date written on the packaging must not be eaten after the specified date. This is because such foods usually go bad quickly and may be injurious to health if spoiled. It is also important to follow storage instructions carefully for these foods. These types of foods include milk/milk products and meat/poultry/fish.
Sell by and Display Until Dates: These dates are intended to help keep track of the stock in stores. Food that has passed its sell by or display until date, but is still within its use by / best before date will still be edible, assuming it has been stored correctly. It is common practice in large stores to throw away such food, as it makes the stock control process easier.
How Long Are Foods OK to Eat?
Here are Some General Rules:
- Milk. Usually fine until a week after the “Sell By” date.
- Eggs. OK for 3-5 weeks after you bring them home (assuming you bought them before the “sell by” date).
- Poultry and seafood. Cook or freeze this within a day or two.
- Beef and pork. Cook or freeze within three to five days.
- Canned goods. Highly acidic foods like tomato sauce can keep 18 months or more. Low-acid foods like canned green beans are probably risk-free for up to five years. Obviously, cans bulging with bacteria growth should be discarded, no matter what the expiration date!
Food Safety Tips
Since product dates don’t give you a true guide to safe use of a product, here are some other tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Services:
- Purchase the product before the date expires.
- If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can’t use it within times recommended on the chart.
- Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe for around 6 months. After this time, the quality of the item decreases and there is higher possibility of freezer burn.
- Follow handling recommendations on product.
|Type of Food||Storage Times After Purchase|
|Poultry||1 or 2 days|
|Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb||3 to 5 days|
|Ground Meat and Ground Poultry||1 or 2 days|
|Fresh Variety Meats (Liver, Tongue, Brain, Kidneys, Heart)||1 or 2 days|
|Cured Ham, Cook-Before-Eating||5 to 7 days|
|Sausage from Pork, Beef or Turkey, Uncooked||1 or 2 days|
|Eggs||3 to 5 weeks|
Many manufacturers are conservative when putting on their expiry dates to reduce potential liability. So, when determining when you can eat something, look at the dates, but also look, sniff and taste before throwing anything out. If it does smell or taste questionable, do throw it out!
Lastly, try to remember all the energy and water that has been used to grow, manufacture, package, transport and refrigerate that product before you toss it.
Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/nataliejohnson/