Use By Dates: How to find the balance between being safe and wasting food
Most of us have packets of food lurking at the back of the cupboard which are long past their best-before date. But as so many Irish households cut back on their grocery spend, is it a false economy to eat food that is out of date?
A survey by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) showed that nearly half of us eat foodstuffs which have passed their use-by date. The results, from a group of 1,000 questioned by the FSAI and Teagasc, show that consumers rely on their instinct, as opposed to labelling, to judge if something is safe to eat.
The 46pc of Irish consumers who disregard use-by dates said that they were happy to eat food as long as it "looked and smelled okay". The FSAI think the statistic is worrying and shows Irish consumers are still willing to put their health at risk rather than throw something out.
"We would caution people, as food products contaminated with harmful bacteria may look okay and no different when they have gone beyond their use-by date," says Dr Wayne Anderson, director of Food Science and Standards at the FSAI.
But 'best-before', 'use-by' and 'sell-by' dates are very frequently confusing and as the survey shows, many consumers don't understand what the terms actually mean. Over a third of Irish consumers will not eat food that has passed its best-before date even if it looks and smells fine. This over-caution leads to many households needlessly wasting food.
The simplest way to understand 'use-by' and 'best-before' dates is to see them as applying to two different types of food. 'Best-before' dates are for foods that are not highly perishable. These are the groceries we store in cupboards or freezers: tins of beans, dried pasta, soups, noodles, pulses, sauces, frozen peas and pizzas. The best-before date gives a timescale for when the food can reasonably be expected to retain its "optimum conditions" -- the specific properties of that food.
"With dry foods such as a packet of flour, their keepability is directly related to their dryness, so you've got to follow the storage instructions first," says Dr Anderson. "The date is the cut-off point from where the manufacturer stops taking responsibility for that food, but a product could be good to eat for several months after a best-before date."
So when it comes to those out-of-date tins of beans, use your own discretion whether to eat them or bin them. Dr Anderson urges consumers to "use your sense of smell, sight and taste -- is there mould on it, is it discoloured or has it a strange smell? If it does, don't eat it".
'Use-by' dates need more serious attention. They are required for foods which after a certain period may develop microbiological risks and pose a danger to human health.
"Don't mess about with use-by dates," says Dr Anderson. "They are applied to products which are by law "perishable". So even if that packaged ham looks fine, after the use-by date it could be growing bacteria and mould which can produce toxins, particularly in the case of meat and raw chicken.
So will a pack of rashers cooked a day or two past its use-by date make you sick?
"Probably not," says Dr Anderson, "but it's Russian roulette. There's often one or two days of leeway built into that date in case there is a delivery hiccup or something like that. It's a case of using your judgment and if you're not sure, throw it out."
For consumer safety it is illegal to sell foods past their use-by dates. However it's not illegal to sell foods past their best-before date. In some supermarkets you can find good value in picking up salad bowls, cakes and pastries sold at a discount close to their best-before date.
It's worth remembering that best-before dates, particularly on fresh food, are there to provide a guide. In reality they may be fresh and last longer than the best-before date.