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Confusion over best before, use by and similar labels is a big contributor to food waste at the consumer level.

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I was cleaning out my fridge recently, feeling more and more guilty about every rotted piece of fruit and item past its “best before” date. Everything I was throwing out was wasted money and adding to a landfill somewhere. But mid-purge, I realized I wasn’t sure if I actually had to toss a lot of what I was pitching in a garbage bag. The mouldy strawberries obviously had to go. But did I really have to throw out the ground beef just because its best before date was two days ago?

Canadians waste a shocking amount of food – 58 per cent of all food produced is lost or wasted by producers, manufacturers, retailers, consumers and others, according to a report released last year by Second Harvest. That’s more than 35 tonnes, 11 million tonnes of which is actually edible. That wasted food results in similarly shocking financial and environmental costs. Confusion over best before, use by and similar labels is a big contributor to food waste at the consumer level.

Many of us have no problem tossing out food and so we defer to these labels without thinking twice. “We just need a behaviour shift,” says Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest.

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That shift begins with understanding what food labels actually mean.

“Consumers interpret ‘best before’ to mean ‘bad after’ or ‘dangerous after’ when ‘best before’ is merely a conservative guide to at what point these foods may or may not be past their best quality,” says Martin Gooch, CEO of Value Chain Management International and one of Canada’s leading experts on food waste. Throwing out food because it is past its best before date even though it may still be perfectly edible is “the largest single contributor to avoidable waste of all foods along the entire chain,” Gooch says.

But if we want to save money and help the environment, we should ignore those labels and start listening to our senses. That said, learning what to watch for and changing habits can be a challenge – and a wrong decision could cause illness. Trusting yourself is the first step.

I put myself to the test with milk in my fridge that was three days past its best before date. Poured in to a glass, it looked and smelled as fresh as a country field on a sunny spring morning. But that best before date acted like an ominous narrator’s voice, warning of danger to all who dare drink it. I drank it. I was fine.

Most people stock their fridges with the best of intentions, but end up tossing perfectly good food because of best before labels, agrees Brian Roe, a professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at the Ohio State University, as he reported in a study published last November in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling.

The vast majority of the more than 300 study participants said they expected to eat almost all the food in their fridge, but ended up only consuming about half of it. Food label confusion was a major factor in groceries winding up in the trash, Roe says. His advice to remedying this: “Follow your nose.” He adds, “Most people really don’t understand what those dates represent.”

In Canada, since the mid-1970s, manufacturers have been required to put best before dates on products that have a shelf life of 90 days or less. How these dates are determined is not regulated, but at the discretion of manufacturers. According to a Canadian Food Inspection Agency spokesperson, a best-before date is not an indicator of food safety, but the length of time an unopened product will retain its freshness, taste and nutritional value.

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“In some ways, best before dates are really about brands trying to make sure that when people eat their food they are getting the food experience that the brand wants them to have,” says Denise Philippe, a senior policy adviser with the National Zero Waste Council, an initiative dedicated to reducing waste in Canada.

“Further and better education work needs to be done,” she says. A reasonable request given that the difference between best before and expiration dates can be confusing. Only five types of food are required by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to have expiration dates – infant formula, nutritional supplements, meal replacements, formulated liquid diets and foods for use in very low energy diets that are only sold by pharmacists – and only then because they may not have the same nutritional value on the label afterward.

Then there is the issue of reading the day, month and year on labels, since the order of these isn’t consistent, and listing the year isn’t actually required. But let’s be honest: It’s not that hard, as I’ve learned from weeks of inspecting labels and going with my gut.

Doing so has a wide range of benefits.

Consider, first, the environmental impact of all the food wasted or lost in Canada each year. It’s the equivalent of all the carbon dioxide emissions produced by the cars in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Then there’s the fact that the average Canadian household spends $1,766 on food that is wasted every year.

“We would never put $10 and $20 bills in the garbage, but that’s exactly what we do when we waste things that need not be wasted,” Gooch says.

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In the few weeks since I began ignoring labels and started relying on my own judgement, I estimate that I’ve saved $50. Not a vast sum, but money I’d obviously rather have in my pocket. I’ve eaten sausages that were beginning to brown in my fridge, eggs that I would have chucked without a second thought and cheese that would have landed on top of them in the green bin, among other items. I’ve overcome my initial hesitancy, and no longer hear the voice in my head whispering that I’ll probably get sick if I eat anything past the date on the package.

Yes, I’ve thrown away part of a rotisserie chicken that did not smell very chicken like, and some other food along the way. But I’m learning to trust my nose and my eyes over labels.

Grocery checklist

“There are various ways that foods can spoil, which is a bit of a moving target,” says Keith Warriner, a microbiologist who specializes in food safety at the University of Guelph. If you feel uncomfortable relying only on what your eyes or nose tell you, these guidelines will help.

Deli meats

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.

Soft cheeses

Another listeria trap. Abide by the date on the label.

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Ground beef

If it’s gone a bit brown, that’s probably fine. If it smells off, ditch it.

Chicken

If it smells funky or develops a slimy layer (a bacterial film), avoid it.

Fish

If it smells really fishy, stay away from it. It won’t kill you, but you’ll probably get sick.

Bread

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, Dr. Warriner says.) But if you ever see orange or black mould, stay away.

Strawberries

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.

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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.

Milk

Do the smell test. If it smells sour, or otherwise bad, don’t drink it.

Eggs

The shelf life of eggs is determined by how long it takes salmonella to go from the outside to the inside to the egg. If in doubt, use this test: In a bowl of water, a good egg sinks, a bad egg floats.

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