How to navigate the bewildering world of sell-by dates
By Robin Roberts
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 percent 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, following are 10 commercially made foods that are perfectly safe to eat past their best-before dates:
Cheese —Opened or unopened, hard block cheeses will last two to three weeks past the label in the refrigerator. For best results, once you open it, wrap it in wax or parchment paper, then plastic wrap. You should be okay cutting off any mould — at least one inch all around, then recovering it in fresh wrap. Soft cheeses, like brie, last only a week longer than their dates, and should be tossed entirely at the first sign of mould. Cream cheese is the soft cheese exception; it can be kept for up to a month refrigerated after the date on the package if unopened. If it smells, tastes or looks bad (mouldy), toss it.
Cereal — Your corn flakes might be a little chewy, but they’re still safe to eat up to three months after their use-by date, if stored in a cool, dry place. Once opened, reseal tightly. If your breakfast of champions starts to wither, smell hinky or look mouldy, lose them.
Pasta — The shelf life of dried pasta is anywhere from one to three years but it can last even longer, if stored in a cool, dry place and in an airtight container once opened. If it starts to smell or look bad, throw it out, since it won’t taste as good. Fresh pasta, of course, spoils faster, after about three days in the fridge.
Bread — Store-bought bread will last up to a week past its use-by date at room temperature, tightly closed. Storing in the fridge makes it stale, so toast it or grind it up for bread crumbs or cut it up for croutons. But toss it if it smells sour or goes mouldy.
Yogurt — Yogurt will keep anywhere from three to 10 days after its date, if properly stored (tightly covered and refrigerated). Toss it if it’s excessively watery, clumpy, smells off or goes mouldy (and no, you shouldn’t eat around it).
Milk — Milk is safe to consume for up to a week after its best-before date if it’s continuously stored in temperatures below 40 F. Keep it in its original package, and store on the refrigerator shelf, not the door, which is too warm.
Eggs — Refrigerated eggs stay fresh anywhere from three to five weeks after purchase. The best-before date will likely expire somewhere within those five weeks, but the eggs are still safe to consume up to the end of five weeks. Leave them in their carton and store in the body of the refrigerator, not the door.
Chocolate — Opened or unopened, as long as it’s tightly sealed, that Mars Bar will last up to four months past its best-before date in the pantry, up to six months in the refrigerator, and up to eight months in the freezer. The candy’s taste, texture and colour may change but it should still be safe to consume.
Jams and Jellies — Depending on the amount of sugar (the more sugar, the longer they last) and the storage method, jams, jellies, marmalades and curds can last up to a year past their best-before dates. Discard at the first sign of mould.
Condiments — Most condiments are made with some kind of acidic preservative, extending their shelf life. Oftentimes taste, texture, appearance and smell are not indicators of spoilage, but just of quality. If mould appears on any condiment, always toss it. Opened ketchup can be kept at room temperature but it will only be optimum for about a month. Refrigerated, it will last up to six months past its expiration. Mustards will last up to two months in the pantry, up to a year in the refrigerator past their best-before. Opened mayonnaise will keep for up to three months past its best-before date, but only if kept continuously refrigerated and tightly sealed. Unopened mayonnaise will still be good in the pantry up to four months past its date stamp.