Best Before or Expired? Food Banks’ Questions Answered

Guest blog by Brita Ball, PhD, CTDP, ECPC

There continues to be confusion about best before dates and expiry dates on food and what they really mean to food banks. Many people incorrectly say food has “expired” if it reaches its best before date, so they throw it out. Others complain that best before dates on food actually increase food waste.

Here are answers to some commonly asked questions about date labels:

What do the date labels mean?

  • Best before date labels are about overall quality. The best before date is a company’s promise that, when stored properly, an unopened product will keep its wholesomeness, flavour, nutritional value and other aspects of quality until the stated date.
  • Expiry date labels are about nutritional quality of a small set of foods. Expiry date is a company’s promise that, when stored properly, an unopened product will contain the nutritional content shown on the label at least until the specified date.
  • Neither is about food safety.

Which foods need these labels?

  • Best before dates are required only on prepackaged foods that will spoil within 90 days of manufacture, including minimally processed fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Expiry dates are required on a small set of foods that have specific nutritional requirements, such as infant formula, other meal replacement drinks and powders, and nutritional supplements.
  • Some perishable foods do not need best before dates. Examples are some baked goods, and fresh fruits and vegetables that have only been washed and bagged.
  • Many foods that have best before dates do not need them. Having dates on these may increase food waste as products with a long shelf-life may be discarded even when the quality is acceptable.

Can food past its date be shared with food bank clients?

  • Whether or not food has passed its best before date, it should not be shared if it has spoiled or if transportation or storage conditions have put food safety at risk (e.g. refrigerator above 4°C (40°F) for more than two hours).
  • Many foods that have best before dates can be shared past the date if they have been stored properly. Foods that are low in moisture and/or low in fats and oils will keep longer after the labelled date than others. A few foods can be shared a year or more past the best before date. These include rice, dry pasta and honey.
  • Foods that have expiry dates are not to be shared with food bank clients past the date, as the nutritional content and the microbiological and physical stability of these meal replacements and nutritional supplements cannot be guaranteed.

For information about specific foods, contact Food Banks Canada for a copy of their guidelines for distributing food past the best before dates.

When is the best before date invalid?

The date label is only valid for unopened products that have been stored properly. The best before dates no longer apply when:

  • Bulk packages have been opened to repackage foods for sharing
  • Products have been refrigerated or frozen to increase shelf-life
  • Ambient temperature storage has excessively high temperature, humidity or light

What can be done to extend the shelf-life of foods?

  • For foods stored at ambient temperature, keep the food storage area
    • Cool— keep at 10 – 21°C (50 – 70°F ) the cooler side of this range is preferable as the shelf life of most packaged food is cut in half for every 10C° increase in temperature
    • Dry—keep 50 – 55% relative humidity, lower is better as some foods will absorb moisture from the air allowing quality to deteriorate
    • Dark—block sunlight and turn off lights when possible as light promotes oxidative spoilage and nutrient loss; sunlight also increases room temperature
  • For foods stored at refrigerator temperature, keep the refrigerator
    • Cold— the required temperature for refrigerated foods is 0 – 4°C (32 – 40°F). Keeping the temperature at the low end of this range will reduce the spoilage rate and extend the shelf-life.
  • For frozen foods, maintain the freezer at temperature that will keep foods
    • Solidly frozen—the temperature needed is -18°C (0°F)
  • Some shelf-stable or refrigerated foods can be frozen to extend their shelf-lives. The Best before dates on these would no longer apply. Food can still spoil in the freezer if left too long.

What about food safety?

Date labels are NOT about regular food safety concerns.

Unlike spoilage problems, sight, smell or taste cannot be used to judge the safety of food. Foods are expected to be safe when shared. However, raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs need to be handled carefully and cooked before eating.

Storage conditions and handling can affect the safety of foods.

  • Foods that require refrigeration for safety must be held at 0 – 4°C (32 – 40°F)
  • Frozen foods must not be allowed to be thaw before sharing whether or not they have Best before dates
  • Canned goods must be checked for excessive damage and other food safety issues before sharing
  • • Pests must be controlled as they can contaminate and destroy food in storage
    • Rats alone ruin enough food worldwide each year to feed 200 million people
    • Cockroaches spread germs and parasitic worms to food
    • Flour beetles, meal moths and weevils can be in foods brought into the food bank
    • Flies, ants and birds can also cause food safety problems in food banks
  • • Food handlers (staff and volunteers)  must follow all food safety rules in the food bank to:
    • Prevent themselves from accidentally contaminating food
    • Effectively monitor food storage conditions and alert management about potential issues

Food banks that effectively manage best before dates, food storage conditions, and food handling practices will help reduce food waste and provide safe, wholesome products to clients.