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the truth about best before dates

Photo by Jakub Kapusna 

Author: Simone Quenneville 

Are you perpetually confused by best-before, use-by and expiry dates on your food? Us too. Bare Market blogger Simone explains why these dates are the main culprit behind our food waste problem and busts a few myths along the way.


Canadians are throwing away 40 percent of uneaten food that is still perfectly good. The main culprit? Best-before dates on our food. According to a Canadian study, best-before dates are among the top reasons for someone to throw edible food away. There seems to be a lot of confusion from consumers around what these dates really mean.


So if you feel you’re throwing away more food than you should be, you’re not alone. We’ve been trained into thinking that a fast approaching date on our food means we need to get rid of it ASAP. While these dates can be a helpful guide, there are a few things you should know about them before making it the be all and end all for deciding whether to pour that carton of milk down the drain.


MYTH: A best-before date tells me that the food is not safe to eat after that day

This date actually refers to optimum freshness of the food and does not indicate if the food is safe to eat. So a food past its best-before date likely means it may not have its optimal flavour or texture. I say likely because it does depend if the food item has been stored in the right conditions, such as at the correct temperature.

 

Photo by Morgan Von Gunten 

 

MYTH: All foods need to include a best-before date

Most foods you come across probably have a best-before date written somewhere on the package but they are not necessarily mandatory. Foods that have a shelf life of less than 90 days are required to include a best-before date. If it can last more than 90 days, it is optional for a food to carry this date, such as with dry grains or canned beans. This is different from expiry dates which are required to be written on packages of infant formula, meal replacements, and nutrition supplements.


MYTH: The best-before date still applies once I have opened the container

Not true! The date is only applies to unopened containers of food that are sitting on your shelf or in the fridge. Freezing majorly extends the shelf life of most foods too, so again the date would no longer apply. For the average shelf life of different products visit the Health Canada site.


MYTH: It is illegal to sell foods past their best-before date

It is completely legal! Foods that are past their best-before date can legally be sold in Canada. However, you’ve probably noticed that many stores don’t do this. Mostly because we as consumers are usually looking for the furthest date possible to know that the food we are buying is freshest. Stores then decide to either heavily mark down these products or remove them completely – which is another problem with  food waste at the supermarket level.


MYTH: Best-before dates are regulated by the government

It is actually up to the manufacturer to decide on the best-before date. This is where issues arise. How exactly a manufacturer decides on the best-before date is ambiguous, and everyone may have a different way of going about it.

So what would stop a manufacturer from adding a date earlier than necessary, knowing that our tendency is to throw out food past this date? Only to then turn around and go buy their product all over again? Some food for thought.


Hopefully this has helped clear up some preconceptions you may have had about best-before dates and allow you to think twice about the food in your fridge.

But remember, it can be hard to know just by smell whether a food is safe to eat, so if you are really doubting yourself, throw it out (i.e. compost). Better safe than sorry!

About the author: Simone Quenneville is a graduate of the University of Toronto Master of Public Health program with a focus on nutrition. She is currently pursuing a career as a registered dietitian but was drawn to the Bare Market blog as a way to keep her passion for the environment and sustainability alive.

 


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