What You Need to Know About Best Before Dates in Canada

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.

Don't be a Sucker for Best Before Dates text image

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

Watch: What are Best Before Dates and How to Use Them?

Cover for Best Before video Series. Click to see full playlist on YouTube
Watch Getty’s Best Before Dates series. A step by step guide to learning all about how to use them (and when to ignore 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.

Don't be a Sucker for Best Before Dates text image: 1. Best Before Dates are indicators of quality, not safety.
Don’t be a sucker for Best Before Dates!

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.

Don't be a Sucker for Best Before Dates text image: 2. Manufacturers set the Best Before Dates.
Don’t be a sucker for Best Before Dates!

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. 

Don't be a Sucker for Best Before Dates text image: 3. BBD only apply to closed packages.
Don’t be a sucker for Best Before Dates!

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.

Text: Not all foods have Best Before Dates. In Canada and US, only packaged foods that have a shelf life of 90 days or less are required by law to have a BBD.

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.

Text: Best Before ad Use By indicate peak quality determined by the manufacturere only. Food is safe to eat past the date, if there are no signs of spoilage.
Best Before and Use By mean the same thing.
expiry dates represent food safety, but there are many differing guidelines across Canada and the US, so it's hard to know which guidelines to follow.
Expiry and Best Before Dates are not the same.

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.

text: expiry dates in Canada apply to foods with strict nutritional specifications, like infant formula or meal replacements. In the US, there are different products and expiration standards all across states and municipalities.
Expiry dates are found on products where the nutritional ingredients need to be stable.

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.

Not all foods have BBDs so we need to learn to judge our food by the food... not the date.
Even when they do have a date, it is not always an indicator of food safety.

So what are these reliable, trusted sources?

text. get detailed info from fsis.usda.gov or inspection.canada.ca

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.

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
  • Chicken.ca 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.

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.

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14 Comments

  1. Hello Getty, thank you for your helpful article. Just want to make sure though. I bought 2 bags of trail mix of raisins, almonds, cashews and cranberries. Best before dates are April 15 and May 20, 2018. Too late when I realized something. I wish to give this to my mom back home when I return from my business trip by end of June. Is it still good to consume by then? Thank you and appreciate your response.

    1. Hi Elle,
      Sounds like a great treat for your mom, I wouldn’t worry about that Best Before Date. Assuming the packages are well sealed, all those ingredients will likely be fine for another 6 months or more past the BBD. The key concern is that the oils in the nuts will start to turn rancid and taste old and bitter. If your mom is likely to tuck away your gift for a special occasion (eg. a summer roadtrip), encourage her to store the trail mix in the freezer until she’s ready to eat it. That will make them last even longer.
      Hope this helps,
      Getty

      1. Wow, that’s a quick response! And what a relief! Thank you for giving helpful tips. You take the worry away. 🙂

  2. How about foil packaged butter? Only series of numbers on Lactantia Salted Butter, i.e. 17248 REG 3929 1131. What does this mean?

    1. Hello Anne-Marie,
      Butter will last in the fridge about 6 to 9 months so legally it doesn’t require a Best Before Date, although some may post a date in the standard format. The number that you see is not related to Best Before Date. I believe this number is a production number that’s used for traceability purposes. In case there is ever a recall or concern about a product, manufacturers, retailers, food inspection agencies and consumers can use that number to identify their brick of butter. Other than in those extreme rare cases it is not intended for consumer’s use.

      Getty

  3. Hi
    I bought an Orange Juice from Wholesale Club on 07/25/17 and it says best before 07/20/17.
    after drinking this my son started Vomptings and Lose motions. I called the stores they did not reply back any thing.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your son, if he is losing mobility, you should take him to see a Doctor right away.

      If you suspect food poisoning, report it to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency except in Quebec where the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des PĂŞcheries et de l’Alimentation du QuĂ©bec – (French only) is the lead organization for all consumer concerns. http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/information-for-consumers/report-a-concern/contact-us/eng/1390269985112/1390346078752

  4. Good information on the BBD date. My husband and I were wondering about the canned food in our Earthquake emergency Kit. This article helped us a lot Thanks The Bunkers from Vanc. Isl.

    1. Hi Jeanne,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Hope all is well on the Island and that you’ll never need to use your emergency kit. If you remember, it would be good to swap any canned or dried goods once a year for good measure and to ensure non of the packages have been compromised. But as long as things are well sealed, you should be all set! Good for you for being prepared.

  5. I found this website casue I was starting to wonder how long my cheese would be go for and whether I should free it the BBD is like May 2016 so does this mean it will be good in my fridge until then as long as I don’t open it? Should I freeze it now or should I freeze it in a month or so, in case I Manage to use it? Cheese was on sale I have one block open and one block unopened it is black-diamond cheese. [email protected] dec 26th 2015 email me your opinions please. See my wife passed away last month and I now have to care for myself cooking shopping and all that and I seriously don’t know what to do about this cheese. Thanks.

    1. I’m sorry to hear of your recent loss KoolBreeze, I will email you an answer, but also wanted to post it here.

      The harder (drier) the cheese the longer the shelf life. As long as you keep cheese sealed and stored in the fridge it will last at least until the posted BBD. In fact, if sealed, it will probably be safe for another month past the BBD. However, once you open the package, the BBD becomes irrelevant and you’ll have much less time to use your cheese. Once opened, the shelf life of hard and semi-hard cheese is about 3-4 weeks. If you think you will not use the entire opened block within that time, wrap a portion of it in saran wrap, tuck it in a freezer bag and store it in the freezer for 6-8 months. The unopened package will last tucked away in the fridge well into spring.

      Proper Storage of Opened Hard/Semi Hard Cheese (Parmesan, Romano, Asagio, Swiss, Gouda, Cheddar, etc)
      To keep opened cheese as fresh as possible, for as long as possible, always rewrap it tightly and store in the fridge. Limit how long you keep it out on the counter or table at any time. If serving cheese, cut only what’s needed and don’t keep it out of the fridge for more than two hours.

      Freezing Cheese (Parmesan, Romano, Asagio, Swiss, Gouda, Cheddar, etc)
      You can freeze blocks of cheese or grated cheese for about 6 to 8 months. I find the texture of cheese often becomes more dry and crumbly. I use it for casseroles and pizza but not for cheese trays.

      If you primarily eat cheese sliced on crackers or on sandwiches, I would keep the unopened block tucked away in the fridge for a while and see how quickly you go through the opened block. If you use cheese primarily in cooked/baked dishes, go ahead and freeze your cheese so it won’t take up fridge space and you won’t have to worry about it. Before freezing, cut it into quarters or block sizes that you can use up within 3 weeks. Wrap your cut blocks in plastic wrap and then freezer bags. The less air and moisture gets at the cheese the better it will store. When you’re ready to use it, you’ll have a block that’s more manageable while the other portions stay safely in the freezer.

      I hope this helps.

      Wishing you all the best,
      Getty

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