Do you scoff in the face of use-by dates, preferring instead to use your well-trained eyes and nose to identify when food has really gone off? If so, you’re not alone.
A recent survey* from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) revealed that 58% of those questioned had eaten food after its use-by date in the past month.
The impact of coronavirus on our perception of food availability and affordability may have been an influencing factor on these numbers, with some of us willing to take the risk of eating food past its use-by date rather than see it go to waste.
But regardless of the reason, ignoring use-by dates is a risky business that could leave you unwell.
* 2,039 people surveyed, April 2020.
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In a follow-up survey in May 2020, respondents were asked whether they had tucked into any of these five specific foods identified by FSA microbiologists as posing a risk to food safety if eaten past their use-by dates:
- Cooked meats
- Smoked fish
- Bagged salads
- Soft (mould ripened) cheeses
- Pasteurised milk.
As many as 35% had eaten bagged salads after the use-by date, with 35% tucking into cooked meats and 28% chancing a drop of out-of-date milk.
But the FSA is very clear in its advice not to ignore the use-by dates on food, saying:
‘After the use-by date, don’t eat it, cook it or freeze it. The food could be unsafe to eat or drink, even if it has been stored correctly, and looks and smells fine.’
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Use-by and best-before dates
Use-by dates relate to food safety, and it’s important to follow them in order to reduce the risk of food poisoning.
You may be eagle-eyed with a nose as good as a bloodhound, but the bacteria that causes food poisoning cannot be seen, smelled or tasted.
Food can look and smell fine even after its use-by date, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat. It could still be contaminated.
But bear in mind that for the use-by date to be a genuinely useful guide, you must carefully follow the storage instructions as written on the label, such as ‘keep refrigerated after opening’.
Not following these instructions could lead to the food spoiling more quickly and increasing your risk of food poisoning.
Sometimes shown as BBE (best before end) on a product label, this date serves as an indication of when the quality of the food or drink may be beyond its best.
For the most part it’s not a safety concern if you eat food after this date, but the flavour or texture of the product might not be at the level you’re expecting.
How to store food safely in the fridge
Taking heed of the use-by date is just one way to avoid the pitfalls of falling sick due to food poisoning.
These tips can also help:
- Keep the temperature in your fridge between 0-5°C If the temperature in your fridge is sitting well above 5°C, it’s basically an open-door policy for heat-loving bacteria to spoil your food.
- Store foods in the right place within the fridge Certain foods fare much better in different sections of the fridge, such as raw meat and fish on the bottom shelf.
- Some foods should never be kept in the fridge The cool, dry environment inside your fridge isn’t best for all foods – and for some items the fridge can even create a food safety issue.
- Clean your fridge regularly Most fridges are teeming with bacteria, so clean your fridge regularly to prevent them from thriving.
To find more details on all these tips, check out our in-depth guide on how to store food safely in the fridge.