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When does food really go bad?

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(Flickr photo - Alpha - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/ )

Every house goes through the same story when groceries go bad. Does it pass the sniff test? How bad could it really be? How many days past the date on the bottle is really too many?

It feels like the same questions are asked in every home, and while expiry dates are something we all rely on to keep ourselves healthy and our kitchens running smoothly, it’s amazing how much we don’t know about how our food is labelled.

There is more information out there than you’d think. In fact, while most food items are not regulated in terms of being labelled with a date, both Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) have websites outlining how your food is labeled and how to tell if it’s safe to eat. The most important thing to note: Not all labelling is created equal.

Expiration dates are pretty black and white. If a food labeled “expiration” or “expiry” date is past due, it’s speaking specifically to the safety of food. The bottom line is that after the date listed, the food is no longer safe to consume. There are only five forms of food that the CFIA requires to have an expiration date: Human milk substitutes (Baby formula), nutritional supplements, foods for use in a low energy diet (not available over the counter), meal replacements, and formulated liquid diet products. All other foods labelled with an expiry are non-regulated, and the date on the package is determined by the manufacturer.

A best before date is not the same an as expiry date. Best before is about the quality of the food, not the safety for consumption. Best before takes into account the freshness, taste, nutrients, and more, as opposed to the state of the food item as a whole.

So what happens after that date – does the food immediately become inedible? Not exactly. The CFIA notes that if food is maintained and kept properly, the best before tells us when the properties of the food begin to degrade. For example, dried pasta may be past its date, but is still safe to eat. It may lose some of its flavour or aroma after that point, or become more fragile when cooking.

Furthermore, it is important to note that after the best before date, any nutritional claims made by the manufacturer (added calcium, vitamins, etc…) are no longer valid. Best before dates also do not apply if the food has been frozen or the package has been opened, as these both alter the environment of the food. “Sell by”, and “use by” are also variations of the “best before” label, with “use by” being reserved for produce and fresh food.

When should you not eat a best before labelled product? While it’s clear that food is to be disposed of after an expiry date, with best before dates, there is a grey area. CFIA recommends monitoring the smell, taste, texture, colour, or consistency. Health Canada takes a less lenient standpoint and does not recommend consuming anything after its before date. It’s important to understand that smell, taste, colour, and consistency, while all important factors, are not the only things to look out for. Packaging that is bulging or leaking can indicate a breakdown of the food inside, with bulging resulting from gas production.

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Food storage is key to any best before or expiry date. Foods that have a shelf life of less than 90 days should include proper storage instructions after opening. Surprisingly, foods that have a shelf life of 90 days or more, do not require any “best before” or expiry date” marking on their packaging.

Maybe you’ve heard it said by some that “expiry dates are just suggestions”, or “it’s just a sell by date, but it’s good for much longer”, and it is hard to disagree without the facts on hand. It’s always best not to play around when it comes to safe food consumption. Your senses will provide a good guide beyond a best before date, but if you’re having doubts, it’s better to dispose of the food.

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