Eat It or Toss It – How to decide if food is safe to eat?

How do you decide if food in your fridge, freezer or cupboard is safe to eat? The more you know about food and what factors to be aware of, the better equipped you are to make that decision. In an effort to help you make informed decisions about whether food is safe to eat, here’s what I recommend followed by an explanation of why no one is willing to make the decision for you.

Read more: How to Store Food, Meal Plan to Save $$ and Reduce Waste, How to Reduce Food Waste at Home.

Why Isn’t there a Food Safety Date

Best Before Dates, as clearly stated by the Canada Food Inspection Agency, are an indicator of food quality not food safety. It will give you the manufacturer’s best guess as to when the taste, texture, quality and nutrients may begin to deteriorate, it won’t tell you if food is safe to eat or not. And even that date has no regulated standard for how it is set – it is left to the manufacturer to decide.

Best Before Dates are an indicator of food quality not food safety.

So when you’re looking at that tub of yogurt, that half jar of spaghetti sauce or that ancient can of whatever in your cupboard how do you know whether or not its safe to eat? How did people make these decisions before Best Before Dates, which made their debut in the 1970’s (used by grocers as an inventory management tool as early as the 1950’s)?

No one can provide you a specific answer. It’s a decision only you can make based on information about your food product that only you know. And like everyone else, I recommend that if you don’t have confidence in that food, err on the side of caution and toss it out.

The fact is food is an organic material that is subject to all sorts of variables. Even if we could create a formula based on precise time, temperature, light, humidity, oxygen exposure, etc. we could never factor in how one household interacts with their food compared to another.  For example, do you put milk out on the table at breakfast time or do you use it and put it right back, does someone drink from the carton (I’ve heard this happens!), do you store it in the door or on the middle shelf toward the back, did you have a long or short trip to and from the grocery store, how hot was it, did you make any stops? Every household is different. There are too many unknowns for anyone to definitively say your milk will go bad in 53 hours past the best before date.

Looking for more Best Before Date info?

Read more. Here’s another full article to arm you with the skills you need to decide safely, every time.

Lets Put Our Knowledge to the Test

With all this information at hand, let’s see how it works in real life. I checked my fridge and pantry for food close or past their Best Before Dates. Let’s see what I should Toss or Eat.

It’s February 3, 2023, there’s a can of tuna in my cupboard with a BBD of March 2021. Toss it or Eat It?

  • Health Canada says toss it
  • CFIA says if in doubt, throw it out
  • EatByDate says canned tuna will last 2-5 years
  • StillTasty says canned tuna will last 3-5 years.

I’m eating it. The can is in good shape, the storage temperature has been consistent. The colour and texture may not be perfect, but there’s no reason why this can of tuna shouldn’t be safe to eat. Who’s coming over for tuna salad sandwich? Or maybe tuna noodle casserole? (Does anyone make that anymore?)

NOTE TO SELF: Rotate the cans in your pantry and use what you have before you buy more!

It’s February 3, 2023, the plain yogurt container has a BBD of February 2, 2023. Toss it or Eat It?

  • Health Canada says toss it
  • CFIA says if in doubt, throw it out and don’t rely on your senses
  • EatByDate says opened yogurt will last 1 week.
  • StillTasty says yogurt will last 5-7 days after opened.

I’m eating it. Come on, it’s only been a day and it doesn’t look or smell funny in any way. I know the CFIA says never use your senses, but dairy products give off some pretty clear signs when they’ve gone bad.

NOTE TO SELF: Yogurt is great in smoothies, there’s no reason to let yogurt go to waste.

It’s February 3, 2023, the mayo container has a BBD of November 28, 2022.  Toss it or Eat it?

  • Health Canada says toss it
  • CFIA says if in doubt, throw it out and don’t rely on your senses
  • EatByDate says an opened jar of mayo will last 1 month past the BBD
  • StillTasty says an opened jar of mayo will last 2 to 3 months after the BBD as long as it has been stored properly

I’m not sure about this one. My mayo is 2 1/2 months past the BBD. There’s just a little left in the container, there’s no mold and we never put mayo out on the table (we use it and put it right back in the fridge so it’s rarely at room temperature for more than 5 minutes).

If I weren’t obsessing about this topic, I likely would have used it up and not even bothered to look at the BBD. However, with all this fuss my mind will likely be playing tricks on me as I dip the knife into the little bit that’s left at the very bottom. I’m in doubt, so I’m going to throw it out.

NOTE TO SELF: Buy smaller jars of mayo, we don’t use it that often. And by the way tuna and mayo make a great salad!

It’s November 3, 2023, the sour cream container has a BBD of October 10, 2023.  Toss it or Eat it?

  • Health Canada says toss it
  • CFIA says if in doubt, throw it out just don’t rely on my senses
  • EatByDate says opened sour cream will last 7- 10 days past the BBD
  • StillTasty says opened sour cream will last 2 weeks once opened

It’s three weeks past the BBD and I know I opened that container way before that date. There’s no visible mold (a typical sign that sour cream has gone bad) but there’s a pool of liquid that looks a little cloudy. This sour cream is past the point of saving – even for baking. I’m tossing it.

NOTE TO SELF: Buy smaller containers of sour cream or bake with it before it hits the BBD. This isn’t the first time we’ve thrown out sour cream.

We had some mighty tasty homemade chicken stir fry on October 31 and there are leftovers in the fridge. Today is November 3. Eat it or Toss it? 

  • Health Canada says eat refrigerated left overs within 2 to 3 days
  • CFIA says if in doubt, throw it out and don’t rely on your senses
  • EatByDate says cooked chicken will last 7 days
  • StillTasty says cooked chicken will last 3 to 4 days
  • says cooked chicken will last 3 to 4 days

We’re on day 3. It’s now or never. If it doesn’t get eaten today it’s hitting the garbage. Wait, never mind, hubby ate it for breakfast!

NOTE TO SELF: Freeze leftovers right away if you know no one’s around to eat the leftovers.

It’s your judgement call. It’s your tolerance level. It’s your food. It’s your decision. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to make those decisions.

Sign up to get articles by Getty delivered to your inbox. You’ll get recipes, practical tips and great food information like this. Getty is a Professional Home Economist,  speaker and writer putting good food on tables and agendas.  She is the author of Manitoba’s best-selling Prairie Fruit Cookbook, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener.

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