Misinterpretation of “Best Before” Dates Contributing to Food Waste

There are limited government regulations surrounding “best before” dates which began to appear in Canada in the 1970’s.  Foods with a shelf life of 90 days or less, except for fresh fruit and vegetables and certain other products, are required to have either a “best before date” or “packaged on” date, depending on where they are packaged and sold.  These dates are set by the product manufacturers, who choose conservative dates for commercial reasons.  The misinterpretation of these labels has been identified as a significant contributor to food waste in Canada.

“Best before” dates represent an estimate of the end of a product’s peak quality; they are not a food safety indicator or an expiry date.  Actual expiration dates exist on only five types of products in Canada:  Baby formula, meal replacements, nutritional supplements, low-energy diet foods sold in pharmacies and formulated liquid diet products.

Health Canada advises that food can be consumed after the “best before” date has passed. The item may have lost some of its freshness, flavour and nutritional value, and its texture may have changed, but it remains safe to consume.  “Best before” dates only apply to unopened products.  Once a package seal has been broken, the shelf life of the product changes.  For example, deli meats stored in the refrigerator should be consumed within four days of opening the package regardless of the date on the package itself.

In its report called “Understanding Food Label”, Second Harvest indicates that food such as stable, canned products as well as evaporated or powdered milk and milk alternatives are safe to consume as much as a year past their “best before” dates.  Perishable milk, dairy alternatives, butter, yogurt, cheese, ice cream and sour cream remain safe to consume two weeks past their “best before” dates and if frozen, for two to three months beyond that. If frozen prior to their best “before dates”, raw beef, lamb, pork and whole poultry are safe to consumer for a year, poultry pieces for six months and ground beef, two to three months, and fish from two to six months beyond.  Even cooked luncheon meats, tofu and eggs are safe to consume a week beyond their best before dates.

Of course all of these guidelines assume food has been properly stored, which for products requiring refrigeration means it was stored at a temperature between zero and 4 degrees C and frozen products at a temperature of -18 degrees C or lower.

When you’re sorting through the items at the back of your fridge, freezer or pantry, these guidelines can prevent unnecessary food waste.  Don’t rely on the sniff test:  Health Canada reminds us that it’s not always possible to be certain if food is safe to consume based on smell or taste and encourages us to follow the adage, “When in doubt, throw it out!”  Meal planning, impulse control at the grocery store and discipline in using what we have will help us reduce our own contribution to food waste and our environmental footprint.  KG

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