Why those expiry dates on food are so important

By: Karen Hawthorne, M.A. | Functional Foods | Friday, August 08, 2014 - 05:00 AM

expiry dates on food are importantI have a tub of sour cream that’s been sitting in my fridge for almost a month now. It smells OK, but should I really use a scoop on my baked potato? A baked potato is a lot more appealing with sour cream, in my mind.

Wait. It’s expired! But like many people, I hate wasting food. The fresh vegetables in my crisper rarely go to mush. I always remember my dad telling us as kids that there are children starving in Africa and we should be thankful for what we have to eat. We never went hungry that’s for sure.

Should I risk the sour cream? How bad could it be?

Err on the side of caution. The common refrain has never been more applicable when it comes to food safety. Rather than dipping into a questionable long-lasting plastic container, read the food packaging and check for the dates. The best before or sell by dates refer to when the product truly is at its best in terms of appearance, taste and texture, but it’s still safe to eat beyond that date.

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However, take note of dates that say use by or “exp” – expiry date – they’re labeled that way for a reason. They’re not safe to eat beyond that date and definitely should be thrown out. They may not turn moldy black and green or look poisonous the day beyond the expiry date, but that date indicates when the food will start to turn bad.

Food contamination and bad bacteria can do a number on your health, from an upset stomach to a serious case of food poisoning. It’s especially dangerous for people with chronic illnesses, like diabetes or history of heart disease, and seniors, all who may have weaker immune systems that can fight off dangerous bacteria.

Which is why, every time I visit my parents’ house I take a look through their fridge. Mom, do you need this salad dressing from 2013? Is that the same container of cream cheese spread that you had last month? And what is that toothpaste-style tube where the label has almost worn off completely – ready to eat basil? Food preparation and handling can be risky enough, so why add to the danger by eating expired food? There’s a common misconception that the refrigerator is like a safety deposit box for ultimate safe-keeping. Things that go in are good and safe, and no harm could come from eating them. And once things go in the freezer, well, they’re good for years…

Not true!

My parents are sticklers for wasting not, but you have to put your health first. Anyone who felt the tail end of the Great Depression likely has a similar opinion on food waste or the need for so many shoes. (I admit it, I love shoes, but do I really need so many pairs?) My dad can still wear his dress shoes from his wedding 55 years ago this July. Well done!

But why risk your health? If you get food poisoning, believe me, you’ll know something’s wrong. Symptoms range from cramping in the stomach area, vomiting, fever and dizziness to diarrhea and dehydration. Bad food bacteria can also leave you with serious bacterial infections like salmonella or listeria. You don’t want those either. The severity can vary depending on the food consumed.

As a healthy habit, make an effort to go through your fridge every week to discard unsafe bets, and place new purchases of frozen foods at the back of your freezer, moving older items forward to use first.

Anything more processed, like canned goods, frozen foods, dried pasta, Hostess Twinkies (that will survive the Apocalypse) are designed for a lengthy shelf life, if they’ve been handled and packaged safely.

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Fresher foods, like the whole foods we all should be eating most, are ones of which you need to be careful: eggs, meat and poultry, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts (yes, those ones from Christmas should be tossed!). These pose the most serious threats, regardless of their appearance or odor. My mom always takes a peak at something, gives it a good sniff and then deems it safe. Deli meats may have a lot of additives and sodium for taste and preservation, but they don’t last forever, Mom, they just don’t.

A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and HarvardLawSchool’s Food Law and Policy Clinic found that Americans are confused by the packaging dates on foods and wasting dollars. In fact, researchers found nine out of every 10 of us are throwing away food needlessly, to the collective tune of about $165 billion annually. That’s a lot of food waste when there are so many people that rely on food banks to get them through their days. For the average family of four, the report states, that could translate to several hundred dollars’ worth of food thrown away every year.

The Los Angeles Times reported on the study and pointed out a few strategies to extend the shelf life of some common foods that are good tips to pass along: If you freeze your meat immediately after purchase, it can last 50 percent longer than its expiration date. Canned goods kept in a cool, dry spot, like a root cellar, will keep safely beyond the expiration, and if you store your milk at the back of your fridge instead of your fridge door, it will still be fine a few days beyond the expiry date. Bread, too, if it’s frozen, will be safe beyond the expiry date, as long as there are no mold spots.

However, I want to warn you about real and present dangers of certain foods that won’t go the distance. Mom and Dad, this list is for you, too!

Deli meat: Even if it still looks good (and not slimy or slightly musty-smelling), it may carry listeria, which is a dangerous bacteria can grow in cold places. So even if you have it properly sealed and stored in your fridge, it should never be eaten past the expiry date.

Mixed salad greens: So handy and ready to go, those bagged greens already pose a health risk because of frequent handling, even though they’re marketing as “washed and ready” for consumption at your next dinner party. They can carry bacteria linked to poor sanitation, so don’t touch them beyond the expiration date. Visual cues like slimy darkened leaves are not appetizing either, of course, but even if they look reasonably fresh, don’t chance it.

Eggs: Eggs are back on the superfood list for a great protein breakfast or hardboiled snack on the go. My grandmother loved her bacon and fried egg for breakfast most days, so she’d be happy to hear eggs are back on the go-to list for healthy eaters. She would also let me dump out her cereal boxes into a bowl to get the prize, but that’s another story. Grandmas are gold!

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Eggs, however, can be tricky. The chances of a contaminated egg are rare, but the shells can carry bacteria. One way around this is to hard-boil, but I’d suggest throwing your eggs out if they’ve passed the expiration date, just to be safe.

Fresh berries: It’s berry season and you can find those delicious tiny wild blueberries at stores and markets. I can’t get enough of them – on oatmeal, pancakes, for crumble or just a simple bowl with a splash of milk. Well, be careful here, too. Any fresh berry can carry a parasite called cyclospora which can make you sick.

Don’t sample them from the pint or quart box, please! Wash your berries thoroughly before eating, and do not consume them or use them for baking or jam after their expiration date or when they start to break down.

You’d think these common, popular foods would be tried and true, and safe for eating. But you need to take a closer look at the dates on the labels and be mindful of food expiration.

It will save you a load of tummy trouble – or worse. And I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, let alone my lovely parents.

Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.

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