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Why are we so hung up on best-before dates? Add to ...

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‘Do you want to take this salmon home for supper?” I asked my twentysomething, partially vegetarian daughter.

“When did you buy it?” she replied.

“Last week when we thought you were coming for dinner.”

“What’s the best-before date?” she interrogated.

“Well, I can’t really read it,” I countered truthfully. “However, the fish is fine. It may have lost some of its nutritional value and a bit of flavour, but I’m sure it’s okay.”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see my daughter raise one eyebrow, followed by a slight rolling of the eyes.

“No thanks, Mom. I don’t really feel like fish tonight.”

“Damn,” I thought. “Here we go again.”

I have always been proud that my three children were good eaters. From toddler times, they regarded meat, fruit, vegetables and dairy products as equal-opportunity foods and gamely ate balanced meals. Whenever their friends turned down vegetables or other healthy food, I would smugly congratulate myself on my parenting skills.

The one exception to my kids’ easy-going attitude toward food was their hang-up on food freshness – specifically best-before and expiry dates. If yogurt was one day past its BB date, lips would clamp shut and heads would shake in rejection. No amount of cajoling could open those mouths.

Where did this fear of old food and expiry dates come from, I asked myself. I don’t serve mould-encrusted food, and my cooking has never poisoned anyone. Are they too cautious about food or am I too relaxed?

Their attitude seemed a bit incongruous to me. These are the same people who, as teens, embraced street food in China and Thailand, eagerly sampling food cooked over charcoal braziers in sultry temperatures.

They gamely tried chili-laden noodles, grilled baby squid on skewers, fried cakes coated in condensed milk, undeterred by the fact these foods were prepared and cooked in unsanitary conditions, attracting armies of flies kept at bay only by hand-held fans.

And they didn’t shy away from the bug carts in Thailand whose delicacies included fried grasshoppers, crickets, silkworm bugs and bamboo worms. I know my grown kids munched on bugs after a night at the pub – they bragged about it.

In their university years, I marvelled at how they escaped being struck down by some devastating intestinal infection. Their apartment fridges were scary places, where closely inspecting the contents was a walk on the wild side, and baking soda and soap made only annual visits. I suspect they lived on takeout and never ate the leftovers in the fridge.

As a boomer kid, I don’t recall being concerned or even aware of best-by or expiry dates. Fridges didn’t use to be as crowded as they are today. Mustard, ketchup, jams and other condiments (except mayonnaise) were stored in cupboards, and I don’t remember hearing of any deaths by ketchup poisoning or mustard malaise.

The issue of eating food after its BB date has become a Mexican stand-off for my kids and me. So, I decided to go to the experts – Health Canada. Their website states: “It is important to know that a best-before date is only meant to indicate how long a food will retain its wholesomeness, flavour and nutritional value when stored under normal conditions.”

“Yes!” I exulted. “A victory for common sense.” And then I read on.

In a seeming about-face, the website recommended you not consume unopened food products after their BB date, and cautioned: “Do not rely on your sight, smell or taste to judge the safety of food.” In bold print, it added: “Use your judgment. When in doubt, throw it out.”

Chalk one up for the kids. Or was it? I was at an impasse. Should my husband and I eat the week-old salmon or not?

I decided to consult the 21st-century oracle, Wikipedia. It confirmed Health Canada’s position that BB dates are advisory and pertain to the quality of the product. BB dates do not guarantee product safety.

The date to be concerned about, according to Wikipedia, is the “use by” date, which indicates when the product may no longer be safe and should not be eaten.

I went back to Health Canada’s site, which also advises that foods not be consumed after their “expiry date.”

So my limited research revealed that the basic advice is to err on the side of caution with BB dates and respect the expiry/use by dates on all products.

So what happened to the salmon? It was a BB (overdue) product which, in an act of defiance, I incorporated into a seafood fettucine dish.

Admittedly, it was a bit tough, and the kids didn’t show up for dinner. But my husband and I survived.

I am now anxiously awaiting a dinner invitation to my children’s homes so I can ask, “What’s the expiry date on those eggs and the BB date on that yogurt?”

My family’s food-safety debate seems minor given Canada’s recent problems with E. coli-contaminated foods, which can kill you.

So I am shifting my attention to the larger issues, and hoping that the food industry is similarly engaged.

Elaine Peebles lives in Ottawa.


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