An interesting piece of trivia: what is the only food that doesn’t spoil? Answer: Honey.
The reason for this is the high sugar and low moisture content, which means that organisms (which depend on moisture) cannot survive and multiply. Hence, stored under the right conditions – i.e. sealed away from moisture – honey will last indefinitely. An often cited example is the honey that was found in sealed jars in Egyptian tombs, which were found to be edible.
Unfortunately, other foods are less hardy. Regardless of how sophisticated the packaging, most of the packaged food that you’ll come across will have a designated serviceable lifespan as denoted by either a “best-before” or “use-by” date. Despite their similarity, these two labels actually have quite different meanings as defined in a Food Standards Code.
Products that have a shelf life of less than 2 years must include a “best-before date” somewhere on its packaging. The definition stated in the code:
Best-before date – in relation to a package of food, means the date which signifies the end of the period during which the intact package of food, if stored in accordance with any stated storage conditions, will remain fully marketable and will retain any specific qualities for which express or implied claims have been made.
You’ll often find that in supermarkets, food items that are approaching their best-before date will be heavily marked down. The misinformed often avoid these, thinking that it means the food is about to go off, but the truth is that it is still perfectly safe for consumption, just that it may not meet the level of standard specified in the product description.
It’s illegal to sell food past the best-before date regardless of its condition, so the shops are obliged to throw stock away regularly. In protest against the consumerism of modern society, and with environmental concerns, there are people calling themselves freegans who “rescue” this food from the supermarket bins. Waste not, want not. Plus, it’s free food!
Certain foods however, deteriorate and become unsafe to eat after a certain period of time. These must include a “use-by date” by which the food must be consumed.
Use-by date – in relation to a package of food, means the date which signifies the end of the estimated period if stored in accordance with any stated storage conditions, after which the intact package of food should not be consumed because of health and safety reasons.
It’s also illegal to sell food that’s past its use-by date, but one would be ill-advised to try and salvage here.
There are two exceptions to the above: bread may use a “baked-on date” instead if it has a shelf life of less than a week – maybe it’s generally assumed that people know bread goes moldy quickly (and that eating moldy bread is bad); and individually packaged ice-cream and food “in a small package” (presumably lollies and the like) – no explanation is given so one can only guess at the reasons (possibly because they’re sold in bulk, and the date is included on the container?)
For the health of both your body and your bank balance, keep the distinction between “best-before” and “use-by” in mind. Savvy shoppers who are familiar with product expiry dates and the supermarket discounting cycles can save heaps on groceries, without having to worry about the risk of food poisoning.