Packaged foods with a shelf life of less than two years must have a label showing the use-by or best-before date.
Use-by dates are about food safety. The date’s determined by the time required for the pathogens in food to grow to levels above which illness might occur if consumed. As long as the food is stored correctly and isn’t opened, it should be safe to eat before its use-by date. After the use-by date, a food can’t legally be sold and shouldn’t be eaten. Use-by dates usually appear on perishable products like meat, poultry and delicatessen offerings.
Best-before dates are about quality. Food can be sold and eaten after its best-before date, as long as it’s been stored according to label instructions. But it may have lost quality and some nutritional value. You’ll find best-before dates on less perishable foods, such as cereals, flour and canned goods. As soon as you open any packaging, the shelf life becomes the same as if the product was unpackaged. For example, a packet of vacuum-packed smoked salmon may have a use-by date that’s a month away – but once opened, you should keep it in the fridge and eat within two days.
Another important factor in food safety is how it’s stored in your fridge. Here are the basic rules:
• Keep your fridge between two and four degrees Celsius. Older fridges frequently run at higher temperatures. You can check the temperature with a fridge thermometer, available from hardware stores.
• Replace poor door seals – they stop a fridge from maintaining its temperature.
• Don’t jam in the food. Air should be able to circulate, to maintain an even temperature.
• Keep raw meat in the chiller or on the bottom shelf, separate from other raw and ready-to-eat foods.
• Defrost food in the fridge, not on the bench. Avoid thaw drips getting onto other foods.
• Keep foods in the fridge covered with clingfilm or in containers with watertight lids.
• Throw out refrigerated leftovers after two days, unless they’ve been frozen. Once thawed, frozen leftovers should be thrown out after two days.
For further advice visit consumer.org.nz
Sue Chetwin CEO consumer.org.nz