Navigating best-before and expiry dates in your pandemic pantry
A guide as you clean your pantry and manage your food stockpile during the pandemic
During the pandemic many have taken time to clean their pantry, getting rid of older cans and bottles at the back of the cupboard whose best-before dates have passed.
But do you really need to toss all that food?
Joy Shinn is a food scientist at Bio Food Tech in Charlottetown, a lab that helps companies develop food and other bioscience products — a big part of that is food safety and labelling.
She explains there are different kinds of date markings for different products: only some are required to display best-before dates, and even fewer have actual expiry dates.
Expiry dates are different than best-before
Only a handful of foods are required to have an expiration date. After the expiry date, the nutritional value could change. Those include:
- Meal replacements, like Boost.
- Nutritional supplements like protein powder.
- Infant formulas.
Few foods require best-before dates
"There's only some foods that are required to have the best before, because it's more of a food safety issue," Shinn said.
These are foods with a shelf life less than 90 days, perishable items that "tend to be higher-risk for food safety," Shinn said, like fresh whole and ground meat, dairy, eggs and deli meats. Shinn said people should not eat these higher-risk foods past their best-before dates.
"These are foods that bacteria can grow, and they could be pathogenic, so these are more of a risk."
Other perishable items like baked goods required to display a best-before date generally just don't last long, Shinn said.
Best-before labels on all other foods are put there voluntarily by the manufacturer, to let consumers know the food is more likely to be fresh and taste good before that date — something most companies do.
Some packaged goods like cookies, cooking oils — "You could eat them," past their best-before date, says Shinn.
"It wouldn't be harmful necessarily — they might not taste as good ... for the most part, you're not going to be at risk" eating stale foods.
"Tasting it is one way to decide" whether to eat these types of foods, she said. "For most people, the taste test will tell them."
None of this applies if the packaging has been opened or stored improperly, she stressed.
Some foods are 'good forever'
Commercially canned foods have a long shelf life and can be eaten for three to five years after manufacture, she said.
What about mould on cheese? Can it simply be cut or scraped off, and eat what looks good underneath?
"Probably the scientific answer is no you're not supposed to," Shinn said, adding "If you're healthy and you have a little bit of it, it's probably not going to be a problem." Be more cautious with soft cheese like brie or ricotta, she said.
One man recently phoned Bio Food Tech asking Shinn if it would be safe to eat a batch of mustard pickles his late wife had made years ago.
"These are perfectly safe," she said — adding in fact, unopened pickles and jams are "good forever."
On the other end of the spectrum — do not eat food in dented or bulging cans, which could contain botulism, a potentially deadly neurotoxin.
Managing your stockpile
If you are fortunate enough to be able to buy enough food for an extra week of two, you should manage that stockpile rather than putting it aside and forgetting it, Shinn said.
Use a "first in- first out philosophy" she said, like grocery stores do — find and use products with the closest, or shortest, best-before dates first.
Freeze things like bread, cakes or even cheese when that are approaching their best-before dates, Shinn said — just be aware once they are thawed how much "life" they have left.