Deep in the cave-like interior of your fridge you discover a sealed yogurt, forgotten long enough that you pretty much expect it to cry out, “human, take us to your leader!” A quick look at the best before date reveals it was two months ago. You wrinkle your nose and throw it away. You shouldn’t.
Before Best Before Dates
Once upon time, basically before food production became industrialized, all we had to rely on to find out if we could eat or drink something was our eyes, noses and tongues. If you had taken your milk cannister to Farmer Joe up the road and asked him by when you should drink the milk he filled up for you, he would have regarded you in much the same way as Nellie, his sheep that was hit by lightning and since then went into polka dance imitations from time to time.
But the bigger things became and the less we knew about where our foods came from, the more we needed a system that gave us a hint about how long they could be eaten. With Farmer Joe you knew that his milk was still in his cows a couple of hours before you went and picked it up. With a milk carton at the supermarket, you have no idea where it came from, how long it took it to get there and how long it has been sitting around. The introduction of the “best before” date on packagings was meant to give people an idea.
At the beginning it was very likely taken as exactly that, a hint, and buyers mostly still relied on their inborn instinct of judging edibility. An instinct that, after all, allowed us to survive tens of thousands of years.
But then these dates took on a life of their own: Businesses started putting them more and more conservatively to prevent complains of spoiled food, and buyers over time got to rely more on them than on their senses. These days, both together result in tons and tons of perfectly sound food thrown away. In the UK alone, 5.3 millon are wasted per year.
Especially with the current economy, it may be time to rediscover your instinct and save some money.
“Best Before” And “Use By” – The Big Difference
There is only one date on packagings I encourage you to heed: the “use by” date. Contrary to the “best before”, this date truly is an indication of when a food will very likely be spoilt. You normally find it on fresh meat, poultry and fish.
These three can develop harmful bacteria colonies that aren’t noticeable and you should closely check these foods even when they are still inside the “use by” date. Any disruption in the cooling chain – from the producer into the delivery truck to the supermarket to your refrigerator – can make this date obsolete. Your own fridge by itself provides added risk of spoilage to these foods: at supermarkets the cooling is usually set to 30°F (-1°C), while most home fridges hover around 40°F (4°C) – a big difference.
Spoilage In The Most Common Foods
Here are some of the most common foods and the usual signs that indicate spoilage:
|Food||How To Tell If Spoilt||Comment|
|Bread||Grayish or black mold||If a loaf of bread or one of the slices in a package has mold, you have to throw away the entire loaf or package. On bread, mold spreads invisible “tentacles” that extend far beyond its visible growth.|
|Milk||Flocculation, sour smell and taste.||Milk can flocculate without having turned bad yet. Early on, the flucculation is more of an indication that the process is about to happen.|
|Eggs||Drop the egg into a glass of water. If it immediately sinks to the bottom, it is fresh. If it floats and doesn’t touch the bottom of the glass at all, it very likely isn’t edible anymore.||When you break an egg and notice a cloudy coloring in the egg white, the egg is very fresh. The “cloudiness” is carbon dioxide, which is present when the egg is laid and over time dissipates.|
|Meat||Rancid or or putrid smell.||Color is not always a good indication of a meat’s freshness. Some stores use carbon monoxide to make it keep its reddish color longer, but a bad smell is still a dead giveaway. In any case, meat should be thoroughly heated before you eat it.|
|Poultry||Rancid or putrid smell, tacky or sticky to the touch.||The same goes for poultry as for meat: heat it thoroughly, as this will kill bacteria on it that might not be visible.|
|Fish||Very strong smell, brown, yellow or grayish around the edges, clouded eyes, flesh doesn’t spring back when pressed on with a finger.||In general, a very strong fishy smell is an indication of old fish, but this differs. Some kinds of fish smell strong to begin with, others don’t, and you therefore have to develop a sense for it, if you want to judge fish freshness by smell.|
|Yogurt, Sour Cream||Rancid smell, white, brown or green spots of mold.||Yogurt and sour cream are classic examples for foods where the best before date is way off, as they are basically made with bacteria. An unopened yogurt or sour cream can be perfectly edible 2 – 3 months after it supposedly turned bad.|
|Canned Foods||Open the can and examine and smell the food: if there is anything (flocculation, discoloring, rancid or putrid smell etc.) you wouldn’t expect in a new can, then the food is bad.||Canned foods stay perfectly ok for a very long time, sometimes even decades. However, your mileage varies with the nature of the food (eg. canned tuna longer than tomato sauce).|
If a can has dents, rust or is bulging, then it is safer to throw it away. The first two indicate damage to the can’s isolation, the last is a tell-tale sign of heavy bacterial activity.
Share Your Experiences
Of course, this is just a short list. How do you tell if your favorite foods have gone bad? What is your mileage with “best before” dates? Have you had foods go bad way before or only long after? Or do you throw away anything that is past its date?