Nfld. & Labrador

You fresh thing, you! Our Instant Expert explains expiration dates

This week, our Instant Expert Wanita Bates reveals the strange, true history behind best before and expiration dates... and whether or not to test the limits.
From Al Capone to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the world of best before and expiration dates isn't as simple as you might think. (CBC)

If I told you that we had the world's most famous gangster and Mafia boss to thank for best before dates, would you believe me?

Here's what I know to be true.

Al Capone was famous for running booze during the days of Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. He was a shrewd businessman and when he saw opportunity he took it. No matter what the liquid inside the bottle.

The story goes like this.

Al Capone lobbied the city of Chicago to put sell-by dates on milk, just as he entered the milk distribution business.

Capone became interested in the milk industry after a family member became sick from drinking not-so-fresh milk. Capone knew that Prohibition was on its way out, and saw a potentially high profit in milk distribution. And hey, he also had a fleet of trucks that could easily be used to transport milk.

Capone bought Meadowmoor Dairies in Chicago and lobbied its city council to pass a law that would require sell-by date stamps be visible on all milk containers.

Food line at Yonge Street Mission in Toronto during the Great Depression. (Photo author unknown)

If I were branding the city of Chicago back in the 1930s, I might use the tag line "come visit Chicago, where the milk won't kill you, but the gangsters might!"

It's all about perception, and to the FBI, Capone was a criminal. But to others he was an altruist and a modern day Robin Hood.

He was the first person to open a soup kitchen to feed the poor during the Depression. Chicago had 25 per cent unemployment and Capone's soup kitchens served three square meals a day, ensuring that anyone who had lost a job could still eat. And I'm only guessing here, but they probably washed it down with a glass of milk.

Mystery mould

Thirty or so years later, and by the 1960s consumers had started to buy more processed foods. And as those foods got further away from where they were produced, there was a growing concern about just how safe and fresh those ingredients were.

In April 1997, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency formed to safeguard the health and well-being of Canadians. Last year I called on the CFIA to help me when a little problem poured out of a Tetra Pak.

The black 'slug' Wanita Bates found when she emptied out a questionable carton of almond milk. (Wanita Bates)

I had picked up groceries and was trying to make space in my fridge. I looked on the door and there was some chocolate almond milk which I had a glass of a few days before. I checked the date and it had expired that day.

I will admit that I usually don't pay much heed to expiry dates, but thought I would chuck this down the drain. I started to pour it out and this gelatinous black thing resembling a slug came out of it. Eck! I jumped back, called my partner to look at it, and took a photo.

I posted it on the company's webpage and said 'what the heck is this?' Then I contacted the CFIA. They sent a lovely woman to the house. We talked about it. She asked if she could take the Tetra Pak back to the laboratory to have a look at it. I said sure. I wanted to know just what exactly I had been drinking.

The less-than-appealing inside of Bates' mouldy Tetra Pak.

An email arrived a few days later to inform me that my 'slug-like' extraneous matter was mould and had no internal organs. Another eck! Thank heavens for tender mercies.

So while that news was not easy to digest, it was better than it being some kind of critter. And that's how I learned the hard way about best before dates.

'Durable life'

So here is what I understand about best before dates, with a lot of help from the Information for Consumers webpage by Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Let's start with the term 'durable life'.

Durable life means the anticipated amount of time that an unopened food product, when stored under appropriate conditions, will retain its freshness, taste, nutritional value, and any other qualities claimed by the manufacturer.

Best before dates don't ensure product safety, but help give a guideline of freshness. (Edith Drouin/Radio-Canada)

A best before date, also known as a durable life date, tells you when this durable life period ends. This information is usually found on the label with the words "best before" and "meilleur avant."  

Best before dates do not guarantee product safety. However, they do give you information about the freshness and potential shelf-life of the unopened foods you are buying.

These best before or durable life dates must appear on pre-packaged foods that will keep fresh for 90 days or less.  It's the best guess by the manufacturer as to when the product's freshness, taste, nutritional value may no longer be valid.

It's more of a freshness date than an indication of food safety.

As long as the item sits in its package unopened and properly stored, it's safe. The minute you open it, the best before date is no longer valid.

Now, you can eat food that has passed the best before date. According to the CFIA, "when this date has passed, the food may lose some of its freshness and flavour, or its texture may have changed. Some of its nutritional value, such as vitamin C content, may also be lost."

Who needs a fickle, fresh product like milk, when you can chomp away on stale potato chips? (iStockphoto)

I will not hesitate to eat something that I consider non-perishable, say like potato chips. Sure, they're not as crispy or as fresh tasting but they'll still give me the salt and fat I'm craving. And sour cream I will eat a few days past the date, I mean I bought it sour, now it's just sourer, right?

When in doubt, throw it out!

The one product that I check the best before dates on religiously is milk. I am always looking to buy the carton with the furthest date away.

I used to be a firm believer in using my nose to smell products in the fridge and see if they smell okay or have they gone off. Honest to goodness, did I think I was Lassie or something? Even a super keen nose could be mistaken.

I mean, what does a food-borne illness smell like? Hmm, now is that a whiff of listeria or salmonella?

Always remember when in doubt, throw it out! Be especially careful around perishable foods like meat. And remember when buying retail-packed foods like meats to check the best before date, the date it's packaged and the storage conditions if different from normal room temperature.

Not even Wanita Bates can smell listeria growing on old food in her fridge. (CBC)

The great thing about being an Instant Expert is that I am constantly learning new things. I learned that I have been using the words best before and expiry interchangeably. Sure, they're like chalk and cheese.   

According to the CFIA there are only five types of products in Canada that need to be labelled with an expiration date. These products are critical to nutrition and must not be consumed after the date has passed on the label.

These items are baby formula, nutritional supplements, meal replacements, pharmacist-sold foods for low-energy diets and formulated liquid diets.

Baby formula is one of the five products in Canada that the CFIA requires carry an expiration date.

Food that has a shelf life of greater than 90 days do not need to have a best before date. That would be your canned and dry goods like tomatoes, beans or crackers.    

If your canned goods are stored in a cool, dry place they can last for two years or more. You may see a series of letters or numbers printed on the can but those are not best before dates. They may contain a date, but usually it's the date they were packaged. The information on these codes allow for shipping, tracking, stock rotation and identifying in the event of a recall.

Some speculate that manufacturers want you to use the best before dates because it means you wind up throwing out product to turn around and buy more of their product, increasing their sales.

There is a movement afoot in the European Union to get rid of compulsory best before labels on products you have in your home for a long time, like pasta, rice or coffee. They are looking to reduce the estimated 100 million tons of food waste across Europe each year.

The European Union is looking to change rules around best before dates, to cut down on food waste. (Getty Images)

Top tips

Here are a few of my Instant Expert tips for you to use in your arsenal against food spoilage.

1. Are your eggs good or bad?

Do the float test: get a bowl filled with water and place the uncooked egg in it.

If the egg sinks, it's good, get out the frying pan. If that egg floats, pitch it out. It's gone to the dark side where the gas production inside is making the egg buoyant and we all know what that can smell like.

2. Back to your cans. Rotate the cans in your cupboard or pantry and use what you have before you buy more!

3. If you see a tin in your cupboard or pantry that has started to swell, leak or is dented, throw it out. It could be contaminated.

4. Never store your cans above the stove, under the sink, in a damp garage or basement, in your car, or any place exposed to high or low temperature extremes.

5. Most canned goods will stay good in the refrigerator for about three to four days after opening.

6. Once the cans are opened, the air reacts to the metals and may leach into your foods so always move them to another container for storage. You know that taste of tin can on your tomatoes?

Just in case of a zombie invasion, you might want to have some non-perishable food stockpiled. (Evan Radford/CBC)

Zombie Apocalypse shopping list

Knock, Knock!

Who's there?

ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE!!!  

Thank goodness I had this shopping list!

Here's your Top Ten List of Foods that Last (Almost) Forever!

1. Salt

2. Sugar

3. Soy sauce

4. Pure maple syrup

5. Honey

6. Dried beans

7. White or polished rice (if stored in an air tight container will keep its nutritional content and flavour for 30 years)

8. Powdered milk

9. Hard liquor

10. Pemmican (dried meat)

Now where is my recipe for slow cooker maple syrup, honey and hard liquor-marinated pemmican over beans and rice?

About the Author

Wanita Bates

Contributor

Wanita Bates is a freelance writer, photographer and broadcaster in St. John's. She has won national and international awards for her work.