I was tidying my kitchen cupboards a couple of weeks ago, and I must confess that despite my usual level of diligence regarding the “dates” on various food products, I did find myself emptying out several boxes and containers into the trash. So this week I am going to delve into the subject of “best before” dates or the “expiry date” on foods. Everyone should be aware of the presence of these dates, but do you really know what it means? With the guidance of the Health Canada website (www.hc-sc.gc.ca) here is what we should know about these types of labels and date stamps.
• The best before date tells you about the freshness and shelf life of the unopened food you are buying. It must appear on almost all pre-packaged foods that will keep fresh for 90 days or less. Some foods show a best before date even if they are not required to do so. It is important to know that a best before date is only meant to indicate how long a food will retain its normal wholesomeness, flavour, and nutritional value when stored under normal conditions. Health Canada recommends that you not consume unopened food products that have passed their best before date. Do not rely on your sight, smell or taste to judge the safety of food. When in doubt, throw it out.
• The best before date only applies to unopened products stored under normal conditions. Once opened, the best before date is no longer valid. Handling or transporting food can also affect the shelf life of a food. For opened packages, manufacturers are required to provide storage instructions on the label when they differ from normal room temperature. Some examples are “refrigerate after opening” or “keep refrigerated,” which are important to follow.
• Some foods can be frozen to keep beyond their best before date. If you freeze food, the best before date is no longer valid. The length of time you can freeze items depends on the type of food you are freezing and its ingredients.
• Best before dates must be in both official languages, using the words “best before” and “meilleur avant” with a date in the year-month-day format. The month may be expressed as a numeral or by an abbreviation. The year is optional, unless it is needed for clarity.
• Some foods–such as meal replacements, nutritional supplements, infant formulas and formulated liquid diets–must carry an expiration date. The expiration date is the date up to which the food maintains its microbiological and physical stability and the nutrient content declared on the label. Foods with an expiration date should not be consumed after the date on the label has passed. When an expiration date has passed, there is no doubt, throw it out.
For additional advice on how long food can be safely refrigerated or frozen check out the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety’s website (http://befoodsafe.ca/). Most food related illnesses tend to get blamed on influenza, a “bug”, or other gastro-intestinal ailments, but are we really just ignoring package dates?
So just to reiterate and summarize: Expiration dates tell consumers the last day a product is safe to consume. Best before date on the other hand tells you that the food is no longer in its perfect shape from that date. It may just lose its freshness, taste, aroma or nutrients. It does not necessarily mean that the food is no longer safe to eat.