‘Best before’ - past its sell by date?

In today’s nanny state, everyone is hyper-concerned about food safety. Food expiration dates are meant as a guideline for determining the quality of the product within. Many of us chuck food into the bin rather than risk eating something that’s past its prime. But are these ‘helpful’ labels doing more harm than good?

Latest figures from the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) show that 7.2 million tons of food are thrown away every year, worth £12 billion. The average UK family wastes £680 worth each year

DEFRA recently proposed that products should only carry a ‘use before’ date because it is the only meaningful, and legally necessary, safety cut-off point. Other labels such as ‘sell until’, ‘sell by’, ‘display until’ or ‘best before’ are often used by retailers for stock or quality control, and can cause confusion

Of course, consumers should realize that these labels are simply intended to help stores rotate their stock in a timely fashion. More education can help with this. But retailers should also realize that humans have been trained to recognize food labels as health protections, and no one likes to bite into to a big chunk of spoiled food. And they’d rather throw it away than make a family member sick

But the dumpster diving movement proves that a large percentage of the food that ends up in grocery store trash cans is completely edible. Remember, food wasn’t always pumped full of preservatives and stored in a refrigerator. And the human race seems to have done just fine

Predictably, the British Retail Consortium think that taking all but the use by date away is a bad idea, claiming, somewhat mystifyingly, that without it there could be a danger of increasing wastage in shops, offsetting any wastage savings the consumer might make, and that better consumer education is needed on what the various dates mean

So, what DO they mean as things stand?

‘Best before’ date

‘Best before’ is the date up to and including when (providing the food has been stored correctly) the manufacturer expects the food to remain at peak quality

Food may still be edible after this date, but its appearance and quality could have deteriorated, so the food will no longer be at its best. ‘Best before’ dates are usually used on foods that last longer, such as frozen, dried or canned foods. Although it’s generally safe to eat food after the ‘best before’ date has expired, eggs should not be used after the ‘best before’ date. This is because eggs can contain salmonella bacteria, which could start to multiply after this date. Some food labels also give instructions such as ‘eat within a week of opening’ and it’s important to follow these instructions

‘Display until’ date

‘Display until’ and ‘sell by’ dates are instructions for shop staff to tell them when they should take a product off the shelves

‘Use by’ date

‘Use by’ means exactly that - you shouldn’t use any food or drink after the end of the ‘use by’ date shown on the label

Foods that have a ‘use by’ date must be removed from sale once that date has passed. Even if it looks and smells fine, using it after this date could put your health at risk and cause food poisoning. You’ll usually find a ‘use by’ date on food that goes off quickly, such as milk, soft cheese, ready-prepared salads and smoked fish. It’s also important to follow any storage instructions given on food labels, otherwise the food might not last until the ‘use by’ date. Usually food with a ‘use by’ date needs to be kept in the fridge

Foods that have a ‘use by’ date must be removed from sale once that date has passed

That’s the official, lawyer conscious, nanny state talking

Unofficially, we can probably agree that things aren’t so simple – or so perilous. The date may say one thing, but the evidence of our senses, and of our plain old common sense, may say something different. Use by dates are most important in anything that contains animal products and especially in anything fresh, rather than preserved. A day or two past the use by date of smoked mackerel fillets – no problem. Fresh mackerel – tread a little more carefully. The term of a use by date will be days away for fresh products, months or even years away if the product is preserved

For one thing, there are major differences between one type of food and another. You may ahve a jar of anchovies in your fridge door whose use by passed late last year. As long as the fish remain covered by oil, is there any harm in leaving it there? Same with a salami, or chorizo released from their vacuum pack. They may get a little drier with time, but will remain delicious and still completely safe for ages

Needless to say, you wouldn’t keep fresh fish for such a long time. Or fresh sausages. But this is just the common sense you build up from shopping, cooking and eating over the years. You may well buy all your fresh meat and fish from a butcher and a fishmonger, neither of whom provides use by dates, but do you get food poisoning?

Come on - correct handling – storage, cleanliness, cooking – is far more important for food safety than the date stamped on a packet of cheddar

here’s another tip for your anti-waste campaign - buy less stuff in the first place. Perhaps the root cause of the problem is really that we throw away lots of food because we buy stuff we don’t need!

So exercise your common sense, buy less and more frequently, and not only will you save yourself a packet, you’ll keep your food off the top of the big waste mountain

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May 03, 2012

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