The nine rules of best-before dates: when to freeze, when to chuck out food

expiry date

A new report estimates shoppers could save £600m if best-before dates were extended by just one day

Most of us have swigged milk teetering on the edge of its use-by date, and shorn the green shoots off a potato. Now it seems our spirit of rationing, or rather our gross refusal to clear out the fridge, has been vindicated.

A report by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) found shoppers could save £600m a year if best-before dates were extended by even one day. Wrap investigated short-life products, lasting between 3-12 days, that typically have high levels of waste, including sliced ham, potatoes, apples, minced beef, chilled pizza, bread, bagged salad and milk. “Some 1.3m-2.6m tonnes of food waste arises ... because the product date code has expired,” the report states.

So how do we know when our potatoes are past it? Can we really have our cake and eat it with fusty eggs?

▶ Know your onions

Everyone I speak to says, categorically, don’t mess with use-by dates. Raw chicken, mince, fish, etc should be eaten within their use-by date to avoid risk of food poisoning. Sometimes even before. “If something is in date and doesn’t smell right, don’t use it,” says Joanna Blythman, food expert and author of Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets. “Use your common sense.”

▶ Know your actual onions

Onions can last months. “An onion’s best-before date is nonsense,” says Blythman. “Just peel off the outer layers. An onion can do you no harm.”

▶ Freeze more

Supermarkets have dropped the “freeze on day of purchase” advice from food labels. “Customers should freeze products right up to their use-by date instead of throwing them out,” says Susi Richards, head of product development at Sainsbury’s.

▶ Keep fruit in the fridge

Refrigerating apples “can extend their life by weeks”, advises Richards.

▶ Some foods last for ever

Pickles, preserves, sugar and salt never go off, so best-before dates can be gleefully ignored, although quality will diminish over time. Kind of like an episode of Friends.

▶ Some foods last a surprisingly long time

A sourdough loaf, as well as being the most aspirational of dough, can keep for weeks. So too can tea, hard cheese and root vegetables. “Just cut off the sprouting bits and pare back the mould,” suggests Blythman. “And remember, supermarkets have a vested interest in selling us food with short best-before dates, because it means we will buy more.”

▶ The golden rule of eggs

Crack, sniff, cook. “I bake with eggs that are weeks beyond their best-before date,” says Blythman. “I’ve only encountered one rotten egg in my life.”

▶ Open life

This is the “once open, consume within x days,” label. Wrap calls for “open life” to be used to indicate food safety, not quality. Anecdotally, food experts (and me) say yoghurt keeps for weeks after opening, yet we’re told to eat it within five days.

▶ Display until …

This label is not a legal requirement, and Wrap is calling for its removal on the grounds that it causes confusion. “Display-until dates can be ignored by consumers, says Estelle Herszenhorn, food and drink manager at Wrap. “They are used by retailers to help with stock control.”

▶ If it feels, looks and smells OK …

… then it probably is. “A nose is a powerful tool,” says Blythman. “Consumers have been deskilled by the food-safety establishment, but the old techniques of touching and smelling still hold.”

Powered by article was written by Chitra Ramaswamy, for The Guardian on Wednesday 4th March 2015 18.40 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010