By: Ellie Topp, P.H.Ec.
Welcoming in the New Year brings a sharpened focus on dates, at least until we remember to always write 2013, not the old 2012. Other dates good to keep in mind are those that appear on our foods. Many packaged foods carry dates that are prefaced by the words ‘Best Before’, ‘Packaged On’, ‘Sell By’ and even ‘Best if used before’. So how much attention should we pay to such numbers?
First of all, it is important to understand that these dates are giving an indication of quality, not necessarily of safety. With the exception of infant formula, the dates on foods are not expiry dates, so that even though the date may have passed, the food will still be safe to eat.
For foods meant for shelf storage at room temperature, such as canned foods and packaged baked products, the quality may not be optimal after the date on the package, but it will not be a health risk as long as the package has not been opened or damaged. These foods will keep for years following the date stamped on them, although they certainly would not have the greatest taste.
With foods that have not had sterilization processing such as most dairy and meat products, the “Best Before’ dates should be followed more closely. These foods are intended to be used before the date on their package expires. As a general rule, they should be not be consumed after that date, although if kept refrigerated, may still be safe for several days after.
Eggs are a somewhat unique product in regard to the date on the box. A very fresh egg will have a white that adheres tightly to the yolk and is what you want for frying and poaching. Older eggs will have a white that is more liquid but are still good to scramble and to use for baking as long as they have been kept in the refrigerator and have no cracks. According to the Egg Farmers of Canada, “Raw shell eggs will keep in the refrigerator without significant quality loss for up to three weeks after the “Best Before” date”.
So that past-dated package of cookies hiding in the back of the cupboard is perfectly safe to eat, even if not very tasty. But for perishable products, keep in mind that it is perfectly legal to sell products after their ‘Best Before’ dates, so be sure to check the date on the package, especially for deli-type meats and dairy, before buying.
And remember, good advice for any food is “When in doubt, throw it out”. Happy New Year!
Ellie Topp is a Professional Home Economist and a Certified Culinary Professional (CCP) with the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She holds a Bachelors degree in Home Economics from Northwestern University and a Masters degree in foods and nutrition from the University of Wisconsin. Ellie has authored ten cookbooks including the best selling The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving now in its second edition and writes a monthly column, ‘Food Bits’, for Forever Young. With support from Canola Information Service and Health Canada, Ellie developed a safe method for making flavoured oils, the results of which were published in Food Research International in 2003.
Ellie represents Ontario Home Economics Association on the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education where she serves as Secretary. She is an active member of the Ontario and Ottawa Home Economics Associations, the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Cuisine Canada.
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The Ontario Home Economics Association, a self-regulating body of professional Home Economists, promotes high professional standards among its members so that they may assist families and individuals to achieve and maintain a desirable quality of life.