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Do I have to listen to expiry dates on food?

Most food products list best before or expiry dates, but do consumers actually have to abide by them?
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Scaachi Koul, April 26, 2013 12:00:17 PM

What do the expiry dates on my food mean? And do I actually have to listen to them?

Dear Reader,

I don’t know, I guess that all depends on your feelings towards diarrhea.

The City of Toronto recently threw out half a million dollars worth of hand sanitizer since they couldn’t use it before it expired. It’s like when you buy too much ground beef for Taco Tuesdays at your house but instead of throwing out $4.36 worth of meat, the fourth largest city in North America had to throw out $571,000 in hand sanitizer because they bought it in bulk.

Here, our collective mothers are saying something like, “You know, there are people around the world who would have just killed for all that hand sanitizer you wasted.”

Surely, we’ve all sniffed at a long-refrigerated carton of milk with a date that has since passed, shrugged, and drank it anyway. But there’s a lot behind those dates.

There are two different terms they use on food products: best before dates, and expiry dates. Best before dates only indicate the quality of the food. That date doesn’t mean you can’t eat the item after it has passed, but it just won’t be as good. It’s more of a quality issue than a food safety issue.

An expiry date, however, indicates how long a product will maintain its nutritional value. After the date, the product isn’t guaranteed to give you all the vitamins you’ve bought it for. Baby formula, for example, has an expiry date, before which your child is guaranteed to get all the nutrients advertised. That’s why you might notice that your milk sometimes goes bad before the best-before date.

Those dates, by the way, are voided as soon as you actually open the product. Your litre of milk might say you have two weeks to drink it before it goes bad, but it doesn’t count once you actually open it. Those dates also don’t mean you’ll get sick if you consume them after the date.

Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations require that most prepackaged foods with a life of 90 days of less have some sort of date on the label. “Use by” dates are for fresh yeast products, and expiry dates are required on items like meal replacements. Dairy products and meats, of course, have their own specific labelling instructions.

Aside from this, the government has little oversight over these dates. “Food safety is on the manufacturer,” says Andre Jean, a scientific evaluator within the Bureau of Microbial Hazards at Health Canada. “The role for us is to evaluate what’s out there in relating to microbiology, to food safety.” The government doesn’t actually regulate expiry or best before dates—the companies responsible for the products do.

It may not, therefore, be too wise to use your technique of making everyone in your house smell raw chicken to make sure it’s still good. (A good rule of thumb to know when chicken has gone bad is if you are questioning whether it’s gone bad: When in doubt, throw it out.)

Organizations like the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, however, function as a bodies that talk to consumers about how to avoid food-borne illness. (Their website lists a slew of frequently asked questions about food safety.) “Those dates are there for a reason, but they’re not necessarily a safety issue,” says Executive Director Brenda Watson.

But if expiry and best before dates are only valid before the package is opened, why don’t food companies list dates for after you open them? “There’s only so much space on a label,” Watson says. “Label real estate comes at a premium.” Manufacturers also can’t guarantee your food will be okay when you take it home, since it depends on how you handle it. Eggs go on the shelf; not in the door.

So technically, no, you really don’t need to listen to expiry or best before dates because they’re not even useful after you open your purchase. What you should be mindful of is how long your product has been open for. For things like cheese or bread, it’s obvious since it either gets stale or grows legs and walks around your kitchen. With meat, it’s a lot riskier to eat something that you’re not too sure of.

Unless you happen to appreciate having an intimate relationship with your toilet bowl. No judgement.

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Scaachi Koul

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