Use-by dates: is it safe enough to eat?
Next time you’re about to throw packaged food in the rubbish, you should double-check the use-by dates on it first. Food safety experts admit that some labelling can be confusing. You could be throwing out food that’s actually still perfectly safe to eat.
Dr Alison Jones, a food technologist from UNSW School of Chemical Engineering, agrees that food labelling can be confusing for many people. She wants to emphasise the fact that use-by dates and best-before dates are actually very different.
“Food manufacturers are responsible for determining the type of date marked on their products to help give consumers a guide as to how long the food product will last before it deteriorates,” she explains. “This is particularly important in determining the quality, nutrition and microbiological safety of food.”
To help you figure out whether all that food in the back of your cupboard is still good or should go in the bin, Dr Jones dishes up the answers in the food labelling debate.
Q: What’s the difference between use-by and best-before?
A use-by date indicates that the safety of the product can’t be guaranteed after the shown date. Food shouldn’t be eaten after its use-by date. It’s also illegal for retailers to sell food after its use-by date for health and safety reasons. Foods that display use-by dates are commonly those where the spoilage is not clearly discernible before you eat it. For example, fresh pasteurised milk, chilled ready-to-eat foods or deli meats.
Best-before dates indicate that the product may suffer some loss in quality after the displayed date. However, they should still be safe to eat. That’s provided its packaging is intact and/or it’s been properly stored. Food can spoil prematurely if it’s been subjected to factors including high temperatures, physical damage, broken packaging or high humidity.
Most foods which have a best-before date should still be safe to eat for a little time after. Retailers can still sell food after a best-before date if it’s fit for human consumption.
Foods that commonly carry best-before dates are those which don’t support the growth of pathogens. Or, in the case of fresh meat, where cooking will destroy any bacteria that might be present. Foods that have a best-before date are shelf-stable foods like food in cans, lollies, tea, coffee, cereals and dried fruits. Other examples include acidic fermented products such as yoghurt or sauerkraut and frozen products.
Q: How do companies determine these dates?
Companies conduct vigorous studies that put products under various conditions and monitor type and rate of deterioration in the food. They test the growth of microbes, loss of nutrients or changes that alter food quality and safety.
If products require special storage conditions in order for the date markings to be effective, manufacturers can provide specific storage statements on the packaging. This is compulsory in the case of a use-by date, where specific storage is essential for product safety. So it’s important to keep an eye out for these on food product packaging.
Some foods, such as canned food, don’t need a use-by or a best-before date, although many do. This is because they have a best-before date of over two years. After that, it gets hard for food manufacturers to give an accurate estimation of how long the food will last.
Q: How long is a food still safe to eat after its best-before date?
That very much depends on the food. The best advice is to look for signs of deterioration, spoilage and/or damage such as mould, slime, rancidity, off-flavours or odours, staling, gas production or broken packaging. You should also follow any of the manufacturer’s specific storage instructions to ensure the best-before and use-by dates are effective.
For more information on food safety, including an A-Z guide to everything from additives and botulism to yoghurt and zucchini, head to foodsafety.asn.au