Got something nasty brewing at the back of your refrigerator? Maybe a half-empty yogurt container that you haven't opened since — well, you're not exactly sure when.

best-before

The best before date indicates how long the contents of the container is at the height of freshness in an unopened container. But that doesn't mean you should dispose of it once it's past that date. ((CBC) )

But with the recession biting your budget, you're hesitant to put any more pressure on your bottom line by throwing out something that might have some value.

Still, you know better than to open it and eat it. It is — after all — well past the "best before date." And once that date is history, your product cannot be consumed safely, right?

Well, not exactly.

"Best before" is one of three types of date codes referred to officially in the Food and Drugs Act as "durable-life dates." These dates are defined by the act as "the amount of time, starting on the day a food is packaged, that the unopened food will retain its normal wholesomeness, palatability and nutritional value when stored under appropriate conditions."

It's up to the manufacturer and the retailer to determine what those dates are.

  • "Best before" dates are mandatory on packaged goods with a shelf life of 90 days or less. 
  • "Packaged-on" dates are mandatory on meat. They are designed to co-ordinate with a chart on display at meat counters that helps consumers determine how long meat will be good to consume from the date it is packaged. 
  • "Expiry dates" are required on fortified foods, such as infant formula or liquid nutritional supplements. They are also required on medication. Drugs degrade over time and some prescription medicine can be dangerous after their expiry date.

It is legal to sell products in Canada that have passed their best before date as long as it's still fit for human consumption and is not labeled, packaged, treated, processed or advertised in a false, misleading or deceptive manner. Retailers aren't allowed to tamper with the best before date.

However, it is illegal to sell a product after the expiry date. Manufacturers establish expiry dates after determining how long the nutrients they add to their products (such as proteins and vitamins) will remain stable. After the expiry date, the nutrients degrade. In the case of infant formula, there is a health risk in that the proteins in the formula coagulate after the expiry dates and could cause digestive problems for babies.

Some manufacturers put best before dates on goods with a shelf life of more than 90 days, even though it's not required by law. Potato chips, soft drinks and non-dairy toppings are a few examples. Fresh fruit and vegetables, donuts and some restaurant and vending machine products are not required to carry either a best before date or durable-life information.

Mayo good for 3-4 months past best before date

But back to your refrigerator. Say you've got a jar of store-bought mayonnaise in there. There's a little left, but the best before date says you should've used it up last week. Are you willing to take a risk?

As long as the product has been stored properly, your mayonnaise should be good for three to four months after the best before date. Even the makers of Hellmann's Mayonnaise say unused mayonnaise should be fine three to four weeks after the best before date — as long as it's been stored properly, which they define as being kept at temperatures under 20 C, or room temperature.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency recommends storing mayonnaise in the refrigerator after it's been opened and says it is likely safe to use for three to four months after the "best before" date, as long as it has been stored safely and has not developed an off odour, taste or appearance. But, if you've left it on the counter under warm humid conditions for hours on end a few times, you could be playing with fire — even before the "best before" date.

But — again — if the smell, taste or look of any food product is off, you probably shouldn't risk it. However, don't toss it and lay out more of your scarcer dollars to replace a perfectly good product.

Have you found a good deal on a big block of cheddar cheese, only to get it home and realize that there's no way you're going to go through it quickly? Don't despair. An unopened package should still be good six months after you brought it home from the store. Already opened it? You're safe for three to four weeks.

Notice a bit of mold on your cheese? Cut away 2.5 centimetres around the mold and re-wrap the cheese. It'll be fine.

If you want your cheese to last longer, you can freeze it for up to 12 months. However, thawed cheese can become crumbly or lose some of its flavour.

You can do the same with other dairy products such as butter and cream. But if you're worried that you won't use what you've bought as quickly as you thought, store butter and cream in the freezer and thaw in the refrigerator when you want to use it.

Raw beef or pork roasts can sit in your refrigerator for three to five days. Chicken — on the other hand — should be used within a day or two of purchase. But throw the stuff in the freezer, and pork can be used within four to six months. Beef will be good for six to 12 months while chicken lasts for a year.

If you keep your freezer really cold (around -18 C), meat should last indefinitely.

If you thaw out your meat but then change your mind, you can safely refreeze it — as long as it's refrigerator cold. However, the meat will likely lose some quality if it's been refrozen.

Ground meat should be used the day of purchase. If not, it should go straight to the freezer, where it can safely sit for three to four months.

If the economy's got you down, and it looks like the recession will never end, take heart. That bar of dark chocolate that you've hidden away for a special treat should be good for up to two years at room temperature. And don't worry if it develops a white film. It'll still be safe — perhaps necessary — to eat.