FOOD

Food Expiration Dates Everyone Should Know

Do you know the difference between 'use by' and 'best before'?

30/06/2016 9:25 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:56 PM AEST
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Knowing the difference can save unnecessary throwing out of food.

Do you pick up a packet of chips from your pantry and throw it out after seeing it is past its 'best before' date (much to your dismay)?

What many people might not know is that you don't have to. In fact, throwing out foods which are not off is contributing to the one in five shopping bag's worth of food Australians throw out every week.

Understanding the difference between Australia's expiration labels is crucial for knowing how long you can safely keep your food so it doesn't end up in landfill -- unnecessarily.

"There's basically three types of expiration dates in Australia," Rachelle Williams, Chair of the Food Safety Information Council, told The Huffington Post Australia. "There's 'use by', 'best before' and 'baked on'.

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'Baked on'


"'Baked on' is for bakery goods. They taste much better eaten the same day or within 24 hours, so this label tells people when it's been baked so they can decide if it's okay to eat," Williams said.

This doesn't mean, however, that a baked good is off when it's past its 'baked on' date. The label simply informs you when it is the freshest.

"It's actually in the name but most people don't quite get that."

'Use by'


"'Use by' means you have to use it by that date," Williams said. "The reason is very simple. 'Use by' is used on foods that are potentially hazardous and have a food safety concern."

Use by dates are set by manufacturers after doing tests to see the maximum allowable bacteria a food can contain -- and how long it takes to get to this point.

"Manufacturers don't pick these use by dates out of the air. They will get a product after it's made, store according to the instructions (under 5 degrees as this is the temperature we should have all of our refrigeration at) and check it at regular intervals to determine how much bacteria is present," Williams told HuffPost Australia.

"When the bacteria has hit the maximum allowed by the law, then they have reached the use by date."

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Foods which need refrigeration generally have use by dates.

Essentially, foods which have use by dates have potential for bacteria to grow. These foods are typically found around the outside of the supermarket.

"Your potentially hazardous foods are meats of all sorts (cooked, raw, smoked), poultry, seafood, some dairy foods (not yoghurt or hard cheese depending on the manufacturer), eggs, cut fruit and vegetables (without skin bacteria can get in), salad leaves, and cooked rice and pasta," Williams said.

"You should not serve, use or sell product that is past its use by date because you can't guarantee the amount of food poisoning bacteria in the food is going to be less than what will potentially make people sick."

We also have to be mindful of the way we store these foods with use by dates, as the wrong storage or transportation can shorten the date by which the food will stay safe.

"The whole process from when the manufacturer makes the product, all the way through to the fridge in people's home is important," Williams said. "If your fridge is operating below five degrees and you keep your cold items in a cool bag on the way, then the use by date is valid.

If it's at its use by date, you can use it on that day, particularly if you're going to be cooking it.

"If, for example, milk has been 'temperature abused' during any part of the process, then your bacteria load is going to be much higher than it would be below five degrees."

If you reach for a food product from your fridge and see that its use by date is today, don't go throwing it out yet. Simply cook it that day to get rid of the bacteria and you can store it in the fridge for up to five days.

"If it's at its use by date, you can use it on that day, particularly if you're going to be cooking it," Williams told HuffPost Australia. "By cooking it you're taking it above that 60 degrees and even to 75 degrees, which is the temperature where the majority of bacteria start to die.

"In other words, if it's bubbling and got a real boil going on, you've definitely gone above 75. Hold it for a good five minutes of boiling to kill as much bacteria as possible. The higher the temperature you go, the less time you need. The lower the temperature, the more time you need."

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Make sure you keep your cold food items in an insulated cooler bag for the trip home.

'Best before'


While 'use by' labels are all about food safety, 'best before' dates are all to do with food quality. It's important to note: a food past its 'best before' date is not off, it is simply not its best quality.

"Take chips for example. If you've tasted chips after their best before date you will have noticed they are not quite the same, the crunch isn't there," Williams said.

"The longer you go past the best before date, the more stale they become. It's not about safety -- it's not going to harm you if you eat it after that date -- it's just that the quality is going to go down."

'Best before' products will generally be in the middle aisles of the supermarket -- canned foods, dried pasta, cereals, chips, soft drinks, biscuits and so on -- meaning they are not potentially hazardous foods.

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Potato chips after their best before date might be a little stale but they're still delicious (and not bin-worthy).

"Businesses are allowed to sell products after its best before, but they do have to make it obvious that it's not premium quality and they often do that by reducing the price or putting it in the 'cheap' basket," Williams said.

A good example to show the difference between 'use by' and 'best before' is looking at cheese. The more moisture there is, the more potentially hazardous it becomes.

"Hard cheeses are actually better close to their best before date, not right at the end. Think about it: they're anything up to 2-3 years old when you get to eat them," Williams said. "Soft cheeses like ricotta are moist so they have a use by date, but hard cheeses like parmesan will have a best before. The longer it ages, the more moisture it loses."

Basically, don't throw out foods which are past their best before date. That slightly old chocolate is totally fine and deserves to be eaten.

Here are the expiration dates for common foods in your pantry and fridge.

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Coffee beans or ground -- sealed jar on a bench for up to two weeks or keep in a sealed container in the fridge for one month. Best stored in the freezer as it slows down the chemical reaction and retains the flavour.

Jam -- unopened in pantry for two years, once opened seal tightly and keep in fridge for up to a month (chuck out when any mould forms).

Peanut butter -– unopened in pantry for one year, once opened keep in fridge or pantry for 3-4 months.

Beer -- unopened four months, once opened keep for no more than a few days (if there is such a thing as leftovers).

Chocolate bars -- unopened for one year, once opened keep wrapped in fridge for 4-6 months. It's important to remember that chocolate absorbs flavours, so needs to be well sealed.

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Don't needlessly throw out perfectly good chocolate that are just past their best before date.

Tomato sauce -- unopened for up to one year, once opened keep in fridge in tightly sealed container for up to six months.

Sugar -- keeps indefinitely opened and unopened. Keep in a container with an air tight lid.

Longlife milk -- once opened keep in fridge just like fresh milk for no more than five days.

Soft drink -- unopened up to three months after its best by date, once opened keep in fridge. If tightly sealed it will be fine for as long as there is fizz.

Dried pasta -- sealed container on shelf for up to 12 months.

Uncooked rice -- sealed container on shelf for up to 12 months.

Tea bags -– sealed container on shelf for up to 12 months.

Frozen vegetables -- unopened up to 24 months, once opened seal tightly in freezer for up to a month as they will get dried out the longer you keep them.

Frozen meals -- as above.

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Sugar and honey can be kept for ages (if it lasts that long)

Honey -- indefinite shelf life. Keep sealed container on shelf.

Juice -- unopened up to eight months, once opened keep in sealed container in fridge for one week.

Tinned fruit and legumes -- unopened up to one year, once opened transfer into a sealed container and keep in fridge for one week.

Lollies -- sealed container on shelf for 1-2 years.

Mustard -- unopened for up to two years, once opened keep in sealed container in fridge for up to one year.

Olive oil -- unopened for up to three years away from heat and light, once opened keeps for 2-3 years.

Wine -- unopened for 1-2 years (decades for fine wine stored in a cellar), once opened close lid tightly and keep in fridge for a few days.

Soy sauce -- indefinite shelf life if unopened, once opened keep in fridge for 2-3 years.

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