Can you eat food past the best-before date? (Use-by dates)
When it comes to pushing the line of the best-before date and use-by dates of foods, most kitchens and consumers at home find this to be a grey area. In all honesty, even experts cannot agree if this is a solid line that should not be crossed or if it’s okay to push the limits. There is also an increasing question about food security and preventing the wastage of food. Considering this, it then becomes important to consider when to save food and when to chuck it.
Unfortunately, in many countries, food labelling laws are still quite ambiguous. This allows the manufacturer to use either dates without clearly defining the meaning.
How are best before and use by dates determined?
Before discussing whether these dates can be pushed, it would be prudent to explain how these dates are determined, and what the difference between the two is. These dates can be explained in fairly simple terms.
Best before date
The best before date, is usually a measure of quality, meaning taste, texture, aroma and appearance. Specifically for foods that do not support the growth of bacteria and other micro-organisms. This means that the product being consumed has a measure of when the best quality of the product would be. Such an example would be ice-cream, butter and bread. These also include tinned and dried products.
The use-by dates are significantly different. This date is a measure of suitability for human consumption and is measured on a scientific basis. These dates would be present in foods that do support the growth of bacteria and include all fresh and ready to eat foods. These dates would be determined by what is called a shelf-life test. These tests include microbiological testing to determine how long a product can last before the growth of bacteria proliferates. The more bacteria grow, the quicker the food expires. These conditions not only support the growth of food spoilage bacteria but can also support pathogenic growth.
There are a number of factors that can determine both dates, including the addition of preservatives, pH, salt content etc. These are the conditions that support or prevent the growth of bacteria. Check out our article on how bacteria grow for more details.
Temperature is also a major factor in determining use-by dates
Many consider that determining these dates is not just a science but also an art. And in many ways they are correct. The temperature of food plays a critical role in determining whether the best before and use by dates are correct. Fresh foods need to be kept between 4 – 7 °C (40 – 45 °F) in order to minimise the growth of bacteria. These temperatures are essential in the calculation of use-by dates. Once foods are kept at warmer temperatures, and especially in the danger zone foods begin to expire quicker and encourage the growth of bacteria.
Because manufacturers cannot foresee that a consumer would accidentally or intentionally (such as a buffet) leave foods out. There are limitations to these dates. If foods are left out above the ideal temperatures, they will begin to expire a lot quicker than the prescribed date. In addition, if these foods are kept at cooler temperatures, such as freezing, these foods will last longer.
One can always assume that foods will expire on or before the use-by date by basic virtue that by simply purchasing these products at a store and then travelling home allows the opportunity for temperature abuse. Therefore, the manufacturer needs to be strict on the use-by dates.
Long vs short shelf-life
The last consideration to make regarding the best-before date and use-by dates is the type of products that carry these dates. Best before dated products usually have a longer shelf-life and do not naturally support the growth of bacteria. Therefore these dates realistically cannot be set in stone. So stretching it a few days can be a reasonable expectation.
However, when it comes to the use-by date, these foods have a shorter shelf-life ranging from 3 – 7 days and there is a reasonable expectation that the date is on cue.
What does this mean for the kitchen?
Many foods that are served from the kitchen would use ingredients from manufacturers that produce best before and use by-products. When it comes to cases of food poisoning complaints, we know that the kitchen is the fist on the list. Taking into consideration your own delivery process, how food is served (a la carte or buffet), it is absolutely essential in terms of both quality and food safety that the dates shown on these foods are adhered to. And that food prepared by the kitchen, meaning mixed, cut/chopped/shredded, cooked are only kept for a maximum of 2 days from preparation.
The same consideration can be made for the home kitchen. At home, food preparation is not governed by food laws and relates more to the moral obligation of serving safe food. In addition to this, those more aware of concerns regarding the environment and food security can consider the best-before date a little more flexible. However, you should always be wary of doing this, and rather considerably better meal planning as a more responsible, safer alternative.