When you find a product in your kitchen with an expired best-before date, your first instinct might be to toss it. But depending on the type of food, it may still be perfectly fine to eat even if it’s past its so-called prime.
Experts also say that reconsidering best-before dates could help combat food insecurity by decreasing food waste.
“Best-before dates are wildly misunderstood. They are not expiry dates. They refer to a product’s peak freshness,” said Lori Nikkel, CEO of the food rescue non-profit Second Harvest, in the report. “Eliminating best-before dates would prevent safe, consumable food from being thrown out and save Canadians money on their grocery bills.”
In recent years, British retail chains such as Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Co-Op have eliminated best-before dates on hundreds of items, primarily fruit and vegetables, in an effort to cut down on avoidable food waste.
When it comes to following best-before dates, it can get confusing. Is it okay to eat expired yogurt? What about the dusty canned tomatoes you just found in the back of your pantry? We answer some of the most commonly asked questions.
What is the difference between expiry dates and best-before dates?
Although sometimes we treat them as the same, best-before date and expiry dates have different meanings on food packages. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency only requires expiration dates on certain foods that have strict nutritional and compositional specifications, which could be compromised after the date. Expiration dates are only required on the following products:
- Meal replacements
- Nutritional supplements
- Infant formula
- Formulated liquid diets
- Foods for use in very low-energy diets, which are only sold by pharmacists
On the other hand, best-before dates refer to the quality and shelf life of an unopened food product, not its safety. They tell you how long a product will retain its optimal flavour, texture and nutritional value when stored under normal conditions.
Best-before dates are required by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on foods that will keep fresh for 90 days or less. However, many foods show best-before dates even though they aren’t required to do so. Foods with an anticipated shelf life greater than 90 days are not required to be labelled with a best-before date. These include most canned foods, many dry foods such as pasta as well as frozen foods.
Is it still safe to eat something past the best-before date?
It depends on the type of food. If you store foods properly, many fresh foods like eggs, milk and yogurt can be safely eaten soon after their best-before dates have expired. Many packaged foods such as crackers, cookies, canned soup and tinned tuna can be eaten safely long after the best-before date. (But be sure to throw away cans that are bulging or leaking – these are not safe to use.)
That doesn’t mean these foods will taste as fresh, however. They may have lost some of their flavour and their texture may have changed. Think of best-before dates as suggestions about how long food will retain its freshness.
Keep in mind that although canned and packaged foods have a much longer shelf life than fresh foods, they can lose anywhere from 5 to 20 per cent of their nutritional content every year.
Which foods are okay to eat past their best-before dates? Which foods should be tossed?
There are different ways that foods can spoil. Here are some general guidelines to follow:
The shelf life of deli meat is determined by the time the bacterium listeria could start to grow in it. If it’s past its best-before date, don’t risk it.
Another listeria trap. Abide by the date on the label.
Hard cheeses will last around three to four weeks in the fridge after being opened, while unopened they will last six months.
If refrigerated, butter can keep four weeks after the best-before date, opened or unopened.
If it’s gone a bit brown, that’s fine. If it smells off, ditch it.
If it smells funky or develops a slimy layer (a bacterial film), toss it.
If it smells really fishy, stay away from it. It won’t kill you, but you’ll probably get sick.
Green mould can be cut off and the rest eaten. The general rule of thumb is true for most dry products, including hard cheese. Dry materials stored at room temperature typically don’t support the spread of pathogens, notes Dr. Keith Warriner, a microbiologist who specializes in food safety at the University of Guelph. But if you ever see orange or black mould, stay away.
This one is going to be hard to accept, but if one is mouldy, avoid all the rest. The mould is probably on all of them.
Lettuce and leafy greens
Pathogens can’t grow on them well under refrigerated conditions, but can under room temperature conditions. A bit of browning is fine. If you start seeing wilting, get rid of it. Listeria loves rotting material.
Condiments and salad dressing
They’ll be fine long past their best-before dates because their high levels of acidity don’t support the growth of pathogens. The same is true of high-acid orange juices. Bottled salad dressing or vinaigrette should last six to nine months after the best-before date.
Do the smell test. If it smells sour, looks chunky or is otherwise bad, don’t drink it.
The shelf life of eggs is determined by how long it takes salmonella to go from the outside to the inside of the egg. If in doubt, use this test: In a bowl of water, a good egg sinks, a bad egg floats.
With reports from Leslie Beck, Dave McGinn and Ben Mussett