Best before, use by, sell by, packaged on… what do all these terms mean?
They can mean a lot of things, but rarely have anything to do with food safety.
So why are these dates printed on almost all food items and what are we supposed to do with the information?
Most of these dates, especially on frozen and nonperishable foods, refer to the quality promised by the manufacturer.
In fact, Canadian law does not even require a date on such foods! They are considered “shelf stable” and perfectly safe to eat, often for many years (in the case of frozen foods, safe as long as they remain frozen).
What can change is taste and texture? For example, cereal may become stale and lose flavour. But as long as the packaging hasn’t been tampered with, it is perfectly safe to eat well past its best-before date. The water in yoghurt, especially low-fat yoghurt, may begin to separate after its best-before date, but again, it will still be safe to consume. Frozen vegetables may have a mushy texture and bland, freezer-ish taste when cooked, but they are also still safe to consume.
In Canada, this includes infant formula and meal replacement liquids like Ensure and Boost. In the US, this refers only to infant formula.
One thing that happens to most foods over time is that nutrient content can degrade, even though the food remains safe. This does not mean the food has no nutrients, just a little less than when it was fresh. For most people, that will have no impact. But for infants and people using meal replacement liquids under the guidance of a physician, even a minor degradation can be an issue. Hence, the required expiration date.
But these foods are the ONLY foods required by federal law to have such dates.
For example, Montana and Pennsylvania both have strict laws regarding milk sales. In Montana, milk must be sold within 288 hours of pasteurization, while in Pennsylvania, the law requires it to be sold within 17 days. After that, it cannot be sold or even donated despite the fact that pasteurized milk continues to be safe to consume well past those timeframes.
In fact, the vast majority of “sell by”, “best before” and “use by” dates are not science-based. Too often, those dates have more to do with politics and economics than consumer safety and what’s best for us and our planet.
So… what are you supposed to do?
If you’re wary about eating it, cook with it instead. Use yoghurt in baking or for sauces. Use stale crackers or cereal as breading, casserole topping or in baked goods. Add frozen vegetables to soup, stew or lasagna. Store condiments according to package directions and you can safely use them well past their date.
In North America, we waste so much dairy. But the truth is that modern pasteurization eliminates any danger, so long as the food is stored properly. We all want the best value for our money. But if you keep dairy products properly refrigerated, they should stay fresh tasting and safe well past their date. So stop reaching towards the back of the grocery store fridge. Buy from the front!
Who wouldn’t want to save money? Many grocery stores offer deep discounts on foods nearing or past their best before dates. But many consumers avoid them because of safety concerns. Now that you know better, go forth and save!
Educate yourself about date labelling and food safety laws in your state or province. The question of whether or not they are science-based and start demanding change when they are not. Write to elected officials and get friends, family and neighbours on board as well. We all want safe food. That comes from science, not politics.
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