Can Food Past Its Best-Before Date Be Eaten?: What Do Expiry Dates Really Mean?

Reusable Nation - What do expiry dates mean

Best-before date and use-by date - what do these actually mean and who decides when food is no longer fit for consumption? How is this decided and how accurate are these dates? Do they just cause unnecessary food waste? We investigate!

Some people will not eat food after the use-by or best-before date, while some people will happily still eat it as long as it still looks or smells good (we’re team still eat it!). But, what do these terms mean and how accurate are they?

We believe that throwing out food that might still be good to eat just because someone somewhere said so is incredibly wasteful, and we have been eating lots of expired food from our bin diving experience without any issues, so we decided to look into shelf life and the process of stamping those expiry dates on food to figure out how accurate they really are and if they should be paid attention to at all or completely ignored.

What is the definition of a use-by date and a best-before date?

A use-by date is “the date which signifies the end of the estimated period, if stored in accordance with any stated storage conditions, after which the intact package of food should not be consumed because of health and safety reasons”. In other words, after the date marked, the food should not be eaten for food health and safety reasons.

While, a best-before date is “the date which signifies the end of the period during which the intact package of food if stored in accordance with any stated storage conditions, will remain fully marketable and will retain any specific qualities for which express or implied claims have been made”. So, if still in its packaging and if stored as it should have been, this food will be as advertised and in its best condition before this date.

Expiry dates were introduced as a legal requirement on packaged food in Australia in 1978 after “it was argued by consumer groups that with the rapid changes occurring in food manufacturing, packaging and retailing that consumers could no longer rely on traditional wisdom and habits to dictate how long a food may be stored”, according to the CSIRO.

Food labelling in Australia is regulated by the revised Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code and the sale of packaged food after the expiration of the use-by date is prohibited. Foods with a best-before date can still be sold after that date if the food is still fit for human consumption.

Who decides what the use-by and best-before dates are?

So, who decides what the expiry date on a food product is? The food supplier, i.e. the manufacturer or packer, does. They measure and estimate shelf life in a variety of ways (not all of them accurate - more on this later), with numerous things being taken into account and a cautious approach usually being taken.

Lifehacker.com.au notes that “for most packaged foods, these dates are usually left up to the food producer's discretion” and they “usually work with third-party companies who perform tests to see how long it takes food to spoil and how shelf-stable packaged food really is”.

Foods such as canned foods that have a shelf life of two years or longer don’t need to be labelled with a best before date.

How scientific is the determination of expiry dates?

How are expiry dates determined? Is this process scientific and indicative of the actual safety of food?

The problem with nailing down a specific date a certain food will go off is the heaps of variables involved. How was it transported, how long before it was packed away, how was it stored, and how was it displayed on the supermarket shelves?

And, according to the CSIRO, while “the most direct way of doing [it] is to conduct properly constructed storage trials under realistic, defined conditions”, “indirect methods of shelf life determination are frequently used to yield results which otherwise would be time consuming to obtain”.

It notes that “these may involve so-called accelerated shelf life tests usually based on storage of the product at higher than normal temperatures or computer-based models” and that “storage of foods at higher than normal temperatures can induce changes in the food which would not occur at normal ambient temperatures” and “the rate at which normal changes are accelerated by higher temperatures must be known with acceptable accuracy”.

In an interview with NPR, John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, said that “companies want people to taste their products as best they can at the optimum, because that's how they maintain their business and their market shares" so they place the expiry date where the product is no longer optimal, not when you can no longer eat it.

He tells NPR that “most products are safe to eat long after their expiration date”, adding: “even meat or milk that's clearly starting to spoil is not necessarily dangerous. Very often, you won't eat it because of the smell, and you probably won't like the taste, but in a lot of cases, it's unlikely to cause you illness.”

Bacteria that will make you ill can make its way into food at any point. As Lifehacker.com.au says, “proper food handling is more important than a printed date”.

Because best-before and use-by dates have been left up to the manufacturers, they have become more about the quality of the food and the manufacturer’s reputation than actual food safety and how long a product can be stored before it has to be eaten.

So, these dates definitely have a bit of leeway and are not hard and fast, with best-before dates having quite a lot of leeway and use-by dates having less leeway.

To read more about shelf life and the studies and testing done to decide on an expiry date read this article by the CSIRO: Food Safety - Shelf Life.

Can expired food be given to charities to feed the needy?

OzHarvest, which collects quality excess food from commercial outlets and delivers it directly to more than 1300 charities supporting people in need across the country, takes unopened dry, non-perishable items in tins, boxes or packets, still within the use-by date or no more than three months after the best-before date.

Foodbank collects and redistributes unsaleable food and grocery items from farmers, manufacturers and retailers, including product that is out of specification, close to date code, has incorrect labelling or damaged packaging, as well as excess stock and deleted lines. It will take food that is “close to” its best-before or use-by date.

When it comes to food suitable for collection by SecondBite, which rescues edible, nutritious food that was heading for landfill and gives it to people in need:

  • “use-by dates must have at least two days life remaining

  • best-before dates must have at least two days life remaining for refrigerated items

  • best-before dates may only be up to three months past for dry goods and the food must still be fit for consumption”.

Where to from here?

As shelf life is measured and estimated in a variety of ways - not all of them accurate - food that is actually still fine to eat ends up in landfill because the expiry date says it can no longer be eaten, which means it can no longer be sold.

Because these use-by and best-before dates are decided by manufacturers, they no longer mean that the food is spoiled; they only mean that the product is not at its best.

Most of the time, to tell if food is edible, you can just look at it and smell it. Does it smell suss? Is it mouldy? Use your senses and your sense rather than blindly believing best-before dates. And even if it is mouldy and a bit spoiled, you can cut off and mouldy or spoiled bit and use the rest of it that isn’t spoiled. And, if it needs to be cooked, cook it well at a high heat.

If you’re buying unpackaged fruit and vegetables you’re doing this anyway. You check for yourself how ripe and ready it is. And when you buy package free goods from bulk food stores you store them and set your own expiry dates.

But, what to do with expiry dates until the blessed day that all food is sold unpackaged and plastic free?

Should expiry dates be abolished and should the public be able to decide for themselves when food can and cannot still be eaten? Should best-before dates be regulated by a third party? Should shops be able to sell food that has expired? There must be a better way that stops food that is still good to eat from going to landfill!

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