Smart Consumer: How to stay safe if you're an egghead
I love eggs. And I eat a lot of them. But I'm always very careful when it comes to checking the 'best before' date on them, especially because for eggs this is required by law rather than a 'use by' date.
Worried about getting salmonella poisoning, I never eat eggs past the date printed on the box. That was until I mentioned this to a friend recently, who glibly announced that she always ate them several days after the date on the box and never had a problem. Now I'm wondering if I should be more daring.
Eggs didn't always come with a date stamp on them and there is a simple test you can do to check freshness. Put the egg in a bowl of water -- if it sinks, it's fresh; if it floats, it's not.
However, Dermot Moriarty of Safefood Ireland warns that the date is there for a reason and we should not consume eggs that have a damaged, cracked or dirty shell, as this is how bacteria can get inside.
When it comes to other 'best before' dates, Moriarty suggests adopting a common-sense approach.
This is just what frugal shoppers in the UK are doing. There, you can buy food on discount websites that are past their 'best before' dates but not the 'use by' dates.
Bought from wholesalers, suppliers and supermarkets at knock-down prices, the demand from savvy shoppers is such that one site, approvedfood.co.uk, reported a year-on-year sales increase of 500pc and another, foodbargains.co.uk, is apologising to customers for a backlog due to heavy demand.
Here, as in the UK, it is perfectly legal to sell food that is past its 'best before' date, but not past the 'use by date'.
A 'best before' date isn't defined by law and rather than being an indication of safety, it is an indication of quality. After the 'best before' date, you can expect the taste of the food to diminish, but it won't kill you.
The food will, however, have "a compromised nutritional value", according to nutritionist Paula Mee. "Guidelines are best heeded," Mee believes, "and while it's fine to eat rice, for example, that has been in your cupboard for a very long time, it probably won't have as much B vitamins as it gets older".
Looking at and smelling a food product is an obvious way to check it, but Mee states that you don't always see everything. She cites the "minuscule grubs" you find in old flour that you will see if you look closely enough. "The grubs were probably there at the start, but in the right conditions they will multiply" and this is why Mee keeps her flour in a sealed container. If you're not too put off by the idea of grubs in your flour, she does add that cooking should destroy them.
Other dates on food might include a 'sell by' date or a 'display until' date, but these are primarily to assist with stock control, they're not legal terms and don't relate to the safety of the item.
The 'use by' date does though. It is required by law for foods that are highly perishable, as they could pose a danger to health once they go off.
Fresh, ready-to-eat and chilled foods fall into that category. The advice from both Safefood and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is that such food can not be consumed, cooked or processed safely after the 'use by' date.
Knowing the difference between the 'best before' and 'use by' dates is important given the amount of food we throw out each year.
In the UK, one third of all food purchased is binned and, here, estimates of consumers discarding 288,000 tonnes of food a year have been cited. That's a lot of landfill and a big waste of money.
While there are so far no websites here where we can buy discounted food past its 'best before' date, there are some things you can do to avoid wasting food.
Don't throw food out just because it's past the 'best before' date. Plan your weekly meals so you don't have too much food and stay away from the 'two for one' offers if you think you won't use the extra food.
Storing the food properly is also important to ensure it lasts well and is perfectly fine beyond the 'best before' date.
Chef Richard Corrigan gave the following advice on this on his Corrigan's City Farm programme and it's worth knowing:
- Put cheese and butter in plastic boxes to prevent them from drying out.
- Store left-over soup, sauces and stock in re-used plastic bottles.
- Take the plastic wrapping off the veg and store in an old metal bread bin.
- If the fruit is nearly off, make jam.
- Check that the fridge is at five degrees and cool warm food down before you put it in.
- Keep raw and cooked food separately and wrap everything in cling film or an airtight container.