Best before, sell by, use by, expires by … what does all that mean, anyway? If your jar of mustard passed the date stamped on the bottom two days ago, are you rolling the dice on your life if you slather it on your burger? Can you eat around that bit of mould on your yogurt and not land in the ICU? And what’s that smell coming out of your bread bag? You’re thinking you might just play it safe and toss it all. But think again.
Earlier this summer, comedian John Oliver blew the lid off the unsavoury world of food waste on his HBO series “Last Week Tonight.” Americans seem to think the land of plenty is a never-ending smorgasbord of refills and second helpings, judging by the 40 per cent of food produced each year that lands not in their stomachs but in their dumps. That’s enough to fill 730 football stadiums. It’s particularly unsavoury when you consider all the hungry people not just around the world, but in their own country. Nearly 50 million of them have trouble putting food on the table.
Canada fares no better, as food waste costs our country some $31 billion every year, according to a report last winter by the consulting firm Value Chain Management International. And that figure doesn’t include what’s tossed from prisons, hospitals and schools, since there’s no reliable data to draw from. And if you add in the cost of what goes into producing this mess — energy such as water, land, labour, capital investment, infrastructure, machinery and transport — that figure balloons to upwards of $100 billion.
Some of that wastage has to do with our confusion over those little stamps on our groceries’ labels. If your eggs’ carton tells you to “use by” Wednesday, what happens if you eat one on Thursday? If the store doesn’t “sell by” today, does that bacon end up in their dumpster tomorrow?
“The best-before date says nothing about the safety of a food,” explains Diana Steele, Global TV’s resident dietician and proprietor of nutritional consulting company Eating For Energy. “This date is simply an indicator of quality, set by the manufacturer based on their scientific evaluation of the food quality over time. It is how long the food will maintain its optimal taste and texture as per the manufacturer’s tests.”
The sell-by date, on the other hand, is how long stores can display a product, and usually applies to perishables like meat, seafood and dairy. And expiry dates indicate the very last date you can safely consume the product. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the only foods in Canada requiring expiration dates are infant formulas, meal replacements, nutritional supplements, liquid diets and foods sold in a pharmacy. And the primary reason for that really has to do with the deterioration of the vitamins and minerals, rendering them useless.
But everything else is pretty much fair game if we use our best judgment. “Eating a food a few days past the use-by date, if it was properly stored, likely won’t make you sick,” says Steele. And those are the operative words: if it was properly stored. If the label says “keep refrigerated,” then keep it refrigerated. If it says “store in a cool, dry place,” do it.
Only foods good for 90 days or less are required to display these dates. But you’ll often see them stamped on the bottoms of cans, jars, rice and pasta, even though you can consume those items well past the best-before date. Regardless, once you pop the lid or rip the plastic, it’s all moot, because then it’s up to you and how you’ve stored the goods that determine how long they last.
For a full list of most foods and their shelf life, check out the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, or the U.S.-based Still Tasty, which lets you search specific products (both sites sometimes differ in their advice). Meantime, the above 10 commercially-made foods that are perfectly safe to eat past their best-before dates. All photos via Thinkstock