Confused by the date labels on packaged foods? You’re not alone. More than 50 per cent of people report uncertainty around date labels, according to a recent study. Food poisoning affects 4.1 million Australians each year – so even if you’ve gambled your luck with questionable leftovers and got away with it scot-free in the past, it’ll pay to learn the difference rather than freewheeling your way around date labels.

Some foods to be extra cautious of include eggs and egg products, poultry and soft cheeses. You might be surprised to learn that look and smell aren’t the most reliable indicators of food safety – so you shouldn’t rely on the sniff test. The compounds that cause signs of food spoilage, like mould and slime, are different to the microorganisms that grow and make food unsafe to eat – but the naked eye (or nose) can’t tell the difference between the two, according to Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

It’s important to note that once you’ve opened a sealed packet of food, it will usually only last for a few days, regardless of what’s on the date label. Nonetheless, here’s the difference between the two date labels you’ll find on packaged food:

  • Use-by dates are the ones you want to keep your eye on. If you consume food after its use-by date, you’re risking your own health and safety. By law, products cannot be sold after their use-by date.
  • Best-before dates, on the other hand, are a little more flexible. These date-stamps are more concerned with quality, rather than safety. You’re more likely to see a best-before date on foods with a long shelf life, like biscuits, canned items and sugar. A product mightn’t be at its peak in terms of flavour or texture – but it shouldn’t harm you if you eat it past the best-before date.

There is a catch, however: if you freeze something, it’ll last longer than what’s indicated by the date label. Ultra-low temperatures stop the growth of harmful microorganisms that can cause food to deteriorate, so many foods can stay frozen for several months without spoiling.

© Prevention Australia