Do Best Before Dates, Expiry Dates, Use By and Sell By cause confusion and debate in your household?
If so, you’re not alone. To help clarify what those terms really mean, here are some important things you need to know about Best Before Dates (BBD) in Canada based on information from the Canada Food Inspection Agency.
Watch: What are Best Before Dates and How to Use Them?
1. Best Before Dates are not an indicator of food safety.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says: “Best-before dates are not indicators of food safety, neither before nor after the date.”
Best Before dates are an indicator of peak quality. They are a manufacturer’s best guess as to when their claim regarding the product’s freshness, taste, nutritional value or other claims may no longer be valid.
“Best-before dates do not guarantee product safety. However, they do give you information about the freshness and potential shelf-life of the unopened foods you are buying.” CFIA
So what does the BBD mean on this can of tuna I found in my cupboard on November 3, 2021 actually mean? Is my tuna safe to eat or not? The BBD does not tell me.
2. There are no standards for establishing best before dates.
The durable life of products or categories is not set out The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulations. In other words, there are no rules or guidelines set by any official governing body regarding what the durable life of a product is. Every manufacturer or retailer sets their own date based on their best estimate as to when the product may not be at its optimum. The CFIA tells manufacturers on how it should be printed and displayed.
There are no rules for selecting Best Before Dates, each company decides what date to print.
Setting a date for when a food is no longer safe to eat is not easy. Just consider all the variables that go into producing, distributing and storing food from farm to table. CFIA says “Food producers and retailers that manufacture food products base the date on how long an unopened product will retain its wholesomeness, taste, nutritional value, and any other qualities, as well as other factors such as the type of product, how it is processed and how it is packaged and stored.” You can bet that manufacturers err on the side of caution.
3. Best Before Dates DO NOT apply to opened packages.
Best Before Dates are guidelines for unopened food products stored under appropriate conditions. In other words, the minute you open a jug of milk, package of cheese or box of crackers the BBD is irrelevant. For example the best before date on this block of cheddar cheese is of no use to me – there’s no way this opened pack of cheese will last from November 2015 to March 2016.
Do all Foods have Best Before Dates?
Best Before Date rules only apply to food with a shelf life less than 90 days.
Items that can be stored for 90 days or more such as pasta, dried goods or canned goods do not require a Best Before date at all. It is the manufacturer’s choice whether or not to include a BBD on these items.
However, if a manufacturer chooses to include a BBD, they must follow the rules about how to print it.
“Packaged On” must be shown on in-store foods with a shelf life of 90 days or less.
You’ll often find the term “Packaged On” stamped on in-store products at the deli, bakery or meat department.
Foods that will keep fresh for 90 days or less, and are packaged at the retail store, from which they are sold, may be labelled with either:
- a best-before date and storage instructions, or
- a “packaged on” date with accompanying information about the durable life of the food (such as the number of days a product will retain its freshness) on the label or on a poster next to the food.
Food may be sold after the Best Before Date.
There is no legislation preventing the sale of food that is past its BBD because the date is based quality not safety. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requires all food sold in Canada to be safe for consumption. It is the retailer’s decision what to do with food past its BBD. Retailers often offer sales on food close to or just past the BBD. It is legal for them to sell or donate food past the BBD.
It is legal to sell food past its Best Before Date.
The terms Best Before and Use By mean the same thing.
These two terms can be used interchangeably; both are an indicator of quality not safety.
The term Sell By is actually intended as a message from the manufacturer to the retailer. It recommends when the retailer should sell the food item so that there is still some shelf life remaining after a consumer purchases it. It is typically two or three days before the BBD. For example, you may see a Sell By Date being 2015 NO 02 and the Best Before Date being 2015 NO 05.
As long as the requirements for the Best Before Date are met, manufacturers may also post additional information like Manufactured On, Freeze By, We Recommend You Use this product by, etc.
Expiry Dates are different than Best Before Dates.
Expiry dates are found on products where the nutritional ingredients need to be stable. By law, Expiration Dates are required on food that has been specially processed or formulated to meet particular dietary requirements. This includes:
- formulated liquid diets (a nutritionally complete diet for persons using oral or tube feeding methods)
- foods represented for use in a very low-energy diet (foods sold only by a pharmacist and only with a written order from a physician)
- meal replacements (a formulated food that, by itself, can replace one or more daily meals)
- nutritional supplements (a food sold or represented as a supplement to a diet that may be inadequate in energy and essential nutrients)
- human milk substitutes (infant formula)
Because these foods are intended to provide very specific nutritional components and these components cannot be assured past the expiry date, they should not be used past the expiry date. If you’re eating these foods for pleasure, not for the specific nutrient content, you can eat them past their expiry date.
The best use for Best Before Dates is when shopping.
Once a product has been opened, the BBD is no longer valid. The time to look at the BBD is when you’re shopping. If you want the freshest product possible, look for the item with the furthest BBD, (Hint: they’re often found at the back of the display). If you want a bargain, consider buying items marked down because the BBD is very close. If you can use or freeze the product right away, you can often score some great deals and still get great quality food.
The Question Remains – Should I Eat It or Toss It?
That explains what Best Before, Use By, Sell By, Packaged On and Expiry dates mean, but it doesn’t tell us if the food is safe to eat past the BBD.
The fact is, there is no easy answer, after all we’re talking about organic material that is subject to all sorts of variables along the food chain. We have to make our own judgement calls based on our food knowledge combined with information from reliable, trusted sources.
So what are these reliable, trusted sources?
Here’s a list of resources to consider.
- Health Canada recommends “that you not consume unopened food products that have passed their best before date.” Personally, I find this a cop out. I get that they want to err on the side of safety, but the government itself says Best Before dates are about quality not safety – shouldn’t this be the responsible, governing body that gives people science based information on what’s safe to eat?
- The Canada Food Inspection Agency says you can eat food after the best before date but “never use your nose, eyes or taste buds to judge the safety of food. You cannot tell if a food may cause foodborne illness by its look, smell or taste. And remember: “If in doubt, throw it out!”
- EatbyDate is a searchable database for how long food really lasts. The authors of this site are unknown but they claim to rely on various sources including the USDA.
- StillTasty.com is another searchable database for how long food really lasts. The authors of this site are unknown but they also claim to rely on various sources including the USDA. This site listed the greatest tolerance for foods I looked up.
- FoodBanksCanada provides a chart and guidelines for distributing food past the Best Before Date.
- The USDA launched the FoodKeeperApp where people can search or browse food to determine recommended storage life.
As a Professional Home Economist, I usually err on the side of caution when I teach about food safety. However, in this case, I feel like Health Canada’s position and our various governments’ suggestions are much too restrictive and conservative. I feel like anyone who has a common understanding of food safety will simply overlook these guidelines. Meanwhile, those that do follow these guidelines end up adding to needless food waste.
On the other hand, can we trust sites like EatByDate and StillTasty whose authors are unknown? Are these sites I would recommend as a Professional Home Economist? Well, I offer them for you to consider, but not without the caveat to use common sense and rely on your experience, food knowledge and gut instinct. And ultimately, I fall back on the same advice that others before me have given – “when in doubt, throw it out”.
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.
For More Details
The rules regarding date labelling in Canada are set, monitored and enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The Agency provides a fact sheet providing an overview of date labelling rules for consumers as well as detailed labelling guidelines for the food industry.
While some of the terminology used may be the same in the US, the rules are slightly different US rules are administered by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Getty Stewart is a Professional Home Economist, speaker, frequent media guest and writer dedicated to putting good food on tables and agendas. She is the author of several recipe books on enjoying and preserving fruit, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener. Sign up to get articles by Getty delivered to your inbox. You’ll get recipes, practical tips and great food information like this.