Grocery stores in Windsor are selling products beyond their "best before" dates, CBC News and Radio-Canada have learned.

Although the practice is not illegal, food experts says it should be discouraged.

The foods were found for sale in stores aligned with all three major supermarket chains: Metro, Loblaws and Sobeys.

Among the food that had passed its best before dates:

  • Ham two weeks past its prime at Metro.
  • Soy milk with the 'best before' date of September 2014 at Metro.
  • Two ham packages four days past their best before dates at FreshCo.
  • A vegetarian meat substitute dinner at Superstore.

Foods with an anticipated shelf life greater than 90 days are not required to be labelled with a best before date or storage information. And the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says grocers are not obligated to remove food from the shelf that is past its best before dates.

Soy Milk Best Before

Radio-Canada found soy milk with a best before date of Sept. 19, 2014 being sold in Windsor. (Edith Drouin/Radio-Canada)

Some foods may be consumed even if their best before date has passed, unlike foods with an expiry date.

An unopened, properly stored product's best before date tells a consumer how long that food will keep its flavour and nutritional value.

'When in doubt, throw it out'

However,  Health Canada has some simple advice.

"Remember, 'best before' dates are not indicators of food safety. They apply to unopened products only," the agency says on its website. "Once opened, the shelf life of a food may change. Never use your nose, eyes or taste buds to judge the safety of food. If in doubt, throw it out."

While it is not illegal to sell food after its best before date has passed, an expert told CBC it's highly unusual.

"It's not shocking to hear about these situations, but they're fairly uncommon," said Sylvain Charlebois, an expert in food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph. "The odd time you may actually find a product that has been there for quite some time. Products in sections where inventory turnover is not as high as other places like in fruits and vegetables for example.

"Now, you could question the ethical and the morality of the practice, obviously, because you are selling a product that is a few years old [in some cases]."

Ham Best Before

A ham could safely be consumed a couple weeks after its best before date. (Edith Drouin/Radio-Canada)

Charlebois suggested grocers sell products past their best before dates at a discount to help curb waste and make it clear to the customer the food is beyond its optimal freshness date.

Philippe Fravalo, a professor and an expert in food safety at the University of Montreal, says products normally contain preservatives and can last beyond their best before dates, but foods that are sold after those dates may not meet the standards consumers have set for themselves.

"The problem is going to be done more in relation to the quality of the product that the consumer expects to have," he told Radio-Canada.

Grocers response

Both Metro and Loblaws issued statements to Radio-Canada.

Metro says consumer safety is a top priority for the chain.

Metro says close monitoring of products and best before dates would be done to ensure their product management procedures are followed.

Food is normally dated, coded and rotated.

Loblaws said it has employees that are trained to remove products whose freshness date has passed, and they hire independent auditors to check products.

The company also said it will contact its local branch to ensure its protocols are followed.

Sobeys did not respond to our request for an interview.

CBC re-visited the stores after we contacted them, and found no items that were expired.

It's important to note the difference between best before dates and expiration dates.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency mandates that only five types of products need to be labelled with an expiration date:

  • Baby formula and other human milk substitutes.
  • Nutritional supplements.
  • Meal replacements.
  • Pharmacist-sold foods for very low-energy diets.
  • Formulated liquid diets.