When Does ‘Best before’ Actually Mean Best Before?

if this should happen, I would advise you not to eat the remaining eggs

One of (very few) downsides to living on a small island in the Caribbean is that most of the food on offer in the stores is imported, and so far past its sell by date that it was last considered good to eat when tape recorders were all the rage.

I can’t count the times I’ve come home from a shop and suddenly realised that several items are expired (sometimes by months), leading me to stand in my kitchen apoplectic with rage and start yelling obscenities at whoever’s within earshot (hubby or Dog, it doesn’t matter, both take it in their stride).

It’s not that I’m afraid of expired food, it’s not that I think salmonella lurks in every packet, it’s the principle of the thing!

this is cool. It’s a milk carton that gradually changes colour the closer it gets to the expiry date

And that’s why, if I spot some expired cheese that’s been lingering on the shelves for longer than is decent, I now hastily shove it in the cart and, when producing it at the till, loudly say: “this cheese is out of date, I’ll buy it – but not at the regular price” and usually get it for free, or as good as.

But as much as my inner cheapskate loves these moments, it does lead me to wonder – should I be eating this stuff?

The short answer is – it depends on the product.

I usually sniff it and go from there

Obviously you need to be more careful with perishables – meat, dairy, fish etc – but boxed items and things that aren’t refridgerated in the store are usually safer.

I’m not encouraging anyone to ignore expiry dates of course, but it’s worth remembering that food manufacturers err on the side of caution and most cases of food poisoning occur not because it’s past its date, but because it isn’t cooked enough or prepared incorrectly.

Oh and the sniff test (while it might work for your laundry) isn’t a great indicator of freshness.

Spoilage bacteria – the ones that produce the greenish tinge and weird smells – aren’t the ones that make you sick.

Scarily enough, the really bad guys can be virtually undetectable.

Last time I tried my cheese trick, it backfired miserably.

The girl on the checkout glared at me, whisked the offending mozarella out of my hands and said haughtily: “no, we can’t legally sell that”, so I went home cheese-less (a bad day, known forever in family history as The Day of No Cheese).

Weigh in: Do you ignore best by dates? Do you make a habit of checking your items at the store? Have you ever demanded a discount on food that’s expired?

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16 thoughts on “When Does ‘Best before’ Actually Mean Best Before?

  1. I had an off-grid type friend a few years back that regularly (and proudly) went dumpster-diving at grocery stores for the expired-but-still-perfectly-edible foodstuffs. I haven’t been so brave. (She would eat sushi!)

  2. And by contrast, my mom tells me my little brother (who’s 23 and still at home) will refuse food “if it’s expired by one HOUR.” (He’s obviously not buying his own groceries yet.)

  3. I don’t eat much in a box. I don’t eat anything that has expired–if I can help it!! I got horribly sick from food and I am too freaked out by that experience to chance it. It was so painful … I … I … can’t talk about it and it was 25 years ago.

  4. Expired and shipped in groceries are the worst! I’m sorry that you have to contend with this. When I lived in Alaska we just got used to having produce that was only half edible, bruised, and mushy – it drove me crazy. And the dairy… ugh. The sad thing is that we had the fishing fleet to contend with, so if you didn’t hurry to the store and get your milk, eggs, and bread before the rest of the mob, you’d be out of luck until the following week!

  5. I eat eggs a couple of weeks (or more!) past the expiration date. If they have been washed (which they all are in the US, not so in Germany) and kept in the refrigerator they are good for a couple of months. If they are unwashed they can remain at room temperature. We don’t keep our eggs in the fridge here in Germany.

    I toss meat, deli meat, cheese, dairy if they are expired. Packaged foods that are unopened I may use. If they’re half eaten (like cereal or crackers) I may use them for that day I notcied the expiration and then toss the rest.

  6. I’m flexible (a little bit) with “best by” dates, but I’m very afraid to use anything if they say “expiration date”. That sounds so much more definitive.
    I always always always check dates while at the store. Since I tend to buy multiples of each item (if they’re on sale, or not usually in stock) I don’t want to have them expire shortly after purchasing them.
    I’ve never asked for a discount for an expired item, but my uncle does every time he goes shopping, and gets great deals that way.
    “The day of no cheese” … I hope to never experience this terrible day.

  7. Ive started watching these labels very closely in the past year. I don’t buy too many canned foods at one time now and my new motto is “If its not eaten in 2 weeks – then throw it out”. Ive also taken to buying items in smaller quantities (ex: 1/2 dozen eggs) so there isn’t too much sitting around to go bad. Its just not worth getting sick.

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