With about 40% of all food waste happening at the consumer level (i.e. in our homes), it’s really important to take an honest look at why and how it’s happening. One of the biggest culprits is the very misleading “best before” date, which leads to a great deal of household food waste as people worry about the safety of foods past those dates.
It’s understandable that we’re concerned about food safety. After all, no one wants to get sick from spoiled food! But the fact is, we’re throwing away a lot of perfectly good food, for no good reason.
It has absolutely nothing to do with safety! Even eggs and dairy! Those dates are about the manufacturer’s quality promise. Whatever taste or texture the manufacturer or producer has promised on the packaging or in advertising, that promise is only valid up to that date. After that, crackers might not be quite as crisp, or yoghurt may need a quick stir to revive the creaminess, but it is still safe to eat, and often tastes exactly the same.
One thing that can happen after a best before date is that nutritional value can start to decrease. That decrease is typically quite minimal, but even a slight decrease can be problematic for meal replacements recommended for medical purposes, or infant formula meant to nourish tiny tummies. For these products, the “best before” or “use by” dates should be strictly adhered to.
When a “use by” or “packaged on” date is printed on raw meat and seafood, that does have something to do with the safety of the product. Raw meats should really be used within 3-4 days of packaging (or less, especially for things like ground beef). If you have raw meat in your fridge nearing that timeframe, use it! Cook it for a meal, cook it then freeze it, or freeze it raw. Just know that if you freeze it raw, you should cook it immediately after thawing it out.
How you store foods is so important. For dried, canned and packaged nonperishables (breakfast cereals, crackers, granola bars, etc), storing them in a cool, dry place, out of direct sunlight - like a pantry or cupboard - is ideal. For perishable items like produce and meat, get familiar with how to store them properly in the fridge so they stay fresher longer.
Although some dates can be regulated depending on the region, those dates also rarely have anything to do with safety (this short film shows an excellent example). In fact, since best before dates are often determined by the individual manufacturer, they are not actually standardized in any way. Other than infant formula and meal replacements - as mentioned above - the process of determining best before dates is mostly unregulated.
The bottom line when it comes to best before dates is that you’re often better off using your best judgement. And, when it comes to food safety, how you store food is far more important than anything else. Learn how to properly store food, and learn how to revive, repurpose or re-store foods that are less than fresh, but still safe. Not only will your wallet thank you, the planet will thank you.
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