Best Before Date – When is food no longer safe to eat?

While most of us do a simple smell check before reheating week-old leftovers, it isn’t the most accurate way to determine whether food is safe. Many people prefer to use best-before or sell-by dates as deciding factors for when to throw something away. However, these dates are not always indicators of food safety; understanding them can help prevent confusion.
What Does the “Best-Before” Date Mean?
Federal law does not require food manufacturers to include a best-before date on their packaging. However, most brands do it voluntarily to communicate the period when their products will taste best. A “best before” or “best if used by” label indicates when the food will have the best flavor and quality and does not indicate food safety. Foods spoil before their printed expiration dates or remain safe and nutritious long after.
There is no standard phrase for date labeling, and you may see other descriptions such as:

  • Sell-by – an indication for the retailer, telling staff how long to display the food for purchase before it starts losing quality. It does not indicate food safety.
  • Use-by – the last estimated day within the food’s peak quality period. It does not indicate food safety.
  • Freeze-by – indicates by when the product should be frozen to preserve its quality and does not indicate food safety.

Understanding Date Labels Could Prevent Food Waste
It’s estimated that Americans throw away nearly 20% of the food they buy. This wasteful behavior leads to growing landfills and greenhouse gas emissions, which could be prevented through better shopping and eating habits. Many people throw food away as soon as it’s reached the sell-by date. However, it’s usually only lost some flavor and quality and is still perfectly safe to eat.
If there are no signs of spoilage, you can still safely eat or donate food after its best-before date. Donating surplus food that is only slightly stale can help feed thousands of hungry people worldwide.
Signs Food is Spoiled and Not Safe To Eat
Two types of bacteria cause food to spoil – spoilage bacteria, which affects its quality, and pathogenic bacteria, which cause foodborne illnesses. Here are five signs your food is contaminated and should be thrown out:

  1. Visible mold – mold is not always dangerous to eat, but food safety experts advise against it. The part of the mold you can see is only the tip of the iceberg, and soft foods like bread or fruit typically contain much more mold below the surface.
  2. Unpleasant odors – microbes release pungent chemicals as they digest organic matter, so a fatty, fishy, or off-odor means your food is on its way out.
  3. Color changes – foods like avocados, potatoes, and meat naturally change color when exposed to air, and are not unsafe to eat. However, if the color changes come with an odor or strange texture – throw it out!
  4. Slimy texture – slime indicates that bacteria have started multiplying on a food’s surface. It most commonly affects raw meat, deli cuts, and vegetables.
  5. Canned food – spoiled canned food can cause botulism, which can be fatal. Never eat anything from a can that is rusted, dented, or swollen.

Best-before dates are a guideline for freshness and flavor and do not necessarily indicate whether food is safe to consume. Always check your food for signs of spoilage before eating it, no matter the expiration date. Advanced Biotech is a trusted supplier of industry news and updates for the food and beverage sector. Please contact us for more information.