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Understanding the dates on our food

You've finally gathered the courage to clean up your fridge or pantry, but how do you know what to keep or chuck? In this podcast, labelling expert Laura Reid helps us understand the different dates on our foods.

We also hear from Sophie Langlois-Blouin, Vice-President of RECYC Québec, about food waste in Canada.

"Many foods have dates and there's rules for how to use them. Generally, when we're looking at date marking, we focus our efforts on verifying that the information is truthful and available to consumers so that they can make decisions."

Laura Reid, Food Labeling Manager at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Understanding the dates in our food – Audio Transcript

Laura Reid (guest): When we're talking about dates, there's lots of different dates, right? So we have a best before date, we have expiry dates and they're different. So a best before date is more about quality. An expiry date is more about food safety. So if you have something with an expiry date, I would suggest not to consume those products after the expiration date. The best before date, however, sometimes you can you can keep those things a little longer if you've stored them well.

Greg Rogers (co-host): Hi, I'm Greg.

Michelle Strong (co-host): And I'm Michelle. And this is Inspect and Protect, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's official podcast.

Greg: All about food safety, animal health and plant health.

Michelle: Greg, do you ever have that pit in your stomach because it's snack time and you're hungry? And you open up your fridge and realize there are some items that have been in there for a long time.

Greg: Always.

Michelle: So, you think to yourself, ok, maybe it's time to finally clean things up. But…what do all these dates mean on these items? How do you know what is still good and what you should be chucked out? How do you avoid food waste?

Greg: For sure, that's happened to me. This episode, we've invited date labelling expert Laura Reid, to help us understand how to interpret those best before dates and other useful labels on our food.

Laura: My name is Laura Reid. I'm the manager of the food labeling section in the Consumer Protection and Market Fairness Division of the Agency's Policy and Programs branch.

Greg: Hi, Laura.

Greg: Thanks for joining us today.

Michelle: Can you tell us a little bit about best before dates? Like how should people interpret these labels when they're sorting through their fridge or pantry, looking at food?

Laura: That's a great question. So first of all, you should know that best before dates indicate things like freshness and taste and they're required on prepackaged foods that have a shelf life of 90 days or less. Examples of those foods would be fresh meats or milk. But for foods that have a shelf life more than 90 days like dried pasta or canned fruits, manufacturers can voluntarily add a best before date. The main thing for consumers to keep in mind is that the best before date is about food quality, not food safety. The best before date will tell you that unopened food products should keep their freshness, their taste, their nutritional value and other qualities until that specified date. If it's opened though, the shelf life could be shortened, so it's important to store your foods properly before and after they're open so they remain safe to eat. So when that date has passed, a food can lose some of its freshness and flavor. Its texture could have changed or it may lose some of its nutritional value. Some foods are okay to eat after the best before date has passed, like rice or cookies, for example. Consumers should remember, though, that some foods will become microbiologically unsafe without necessarily seeing signs of spoilage. So they may not be best to consume after the date has passed. All that to say, though consumers can use the best before date as a guide when they're sorting through their fridge or their pantry.

Greg: So it's really about food quality, not like a food safety issue.

Laura: Exactly. Yeah.

Michelle: So if we have food in our pantry or in our fridge that passed the best before date, we shouldn't judge each other? Unless there is mold. Don't eat that.

Laura: Exactly. No, I for sure probably have a few things in my pantry that are expired. Well, maybe I should say the best before date, because there is a distinction between best before dates and expiry dates. Right. So. And we have lots of other dates in Canada that we talk about.

Michelle: Can you run through a description of each of them?

Laura: So expiration dates are required on a small number of specific foods like infant formula and meal replacements. These foods have strict compositional and nutritional specifications that might not be met after their date has passed.

Expiry dates and best before dates are not the same thing, so best before dates like I spoke about, they're about food quality, not food safety, and are required on foods that have a shelf life of less than 90 days. And you'll find those on foods throughout the grocery store. For example, meats, fish, poultry, milk and bread. As long as the food has been stored properly, those foods would be okay to eat for the most part, after the best before date has passed.

Then we see a use-by date which is required on prepackaged fresh yeast.

Some meat products and certain seafood like clams and oysters are required to have a manufacturing or a production date or a harvest date. As is the case for sale for shellfish.

A freeze-by date is an example of a voluntary date that tells you that a product can be frozen to maintain its quality if it's not eaten by that date.

And then on certain other foods, you might see other dates that are required. We do notice, though, in the market that consumers really want to see dates on their food, so voluntarily, manufacturers can add those dates.

Michelle: Right.

Laura: Another important thing to know is that there's rules about date labeling. For example, these dates must be truthful and not misleading, and if they're added voluntarily, they can't take the place of a mandatory best-before date. In cases where the date labeling is required, there's display rules such as for language, for format, for legibility and location. In addition to dates, we also have lot codes which provide information about when the food was manufactured, and that's useful for consumers and manufacturers as well as retailers because these lot codes help with traceability, especially in the case of a recall. So to summarize, many foods have dates. Some are required to carry dates, but even when they're added voluntarily, they have to be truthful and not misleading. And there's rules for how to use them. But really, to answer a question about expired foods and your pantry: generally, when we're looking at date marking at the agency, we focus our efforts on verifying mandatory information is truthful and it's available to consumers so they can make decisions.

Greg: What about "refrigerate after opening"? That's like my big key issue so many times. Is there any guidance around whether it's still safe to consume or is that also kind of a best-before situation?

Laura: I would say generally when manufactured, when they add things about storage conditions on a food's label, it's best to follow those instructions because they can't guarantee that the food is going to be safe if they're not stored properly.

Greg: Right.

Laura: I would say generally things like jam or maple syrup or the Wow butter I have in my pantry. Generally, I try to put those in the fridge after they've been opened.

Greg: Right. I think about like wine, you know, you're supposed to consume wine, red wine, for instance, you know, within a week, which usually isn't a problem. But you know, it's still good after that length of time.

Laura: For sure. And if the taste is not what you're expecting, you can always cook with it, too. Right.

Michelle: Good point. That's a great tip. Unlike salsa which seems to be my product of choice in the fridge that goes bad.

Laura: Oh that happens to me too.

Michelle: What other product would you say seems to be popular for, unfortunately, going into the waste bin?

Laura: Uh, at my house, I would say some of the green vegetables that the kids are not super happy to take in their lunch.

Michelle: We did a bit of research on this after speaking with Laura. According to Canada's National Zero Waste Council, the food items that are the most frequently wasted are: vegetables and fruits, leftovers, bread and bakery and dairy and eggs.

Greg: Vegetables and fruits are by far the main culprits. Calculated by weight, they represent 45% of wasted foods in Canada.

Greg: Do you have a separate pantry that's chock a block full of stuff like a doomsday prepper like we do here?

Laura: My pantry is pretty full, I would say. If yeah, if there's a big apocalypse, you could come to my house and I could probably feed quite, quite a number of people for a while. Although I can't speak to how delicious everything is going to be. But I do tend to have a pretty stocked pantry.

Greg: Yeah. That's the biggest challenge for us is, you know, when you buy a new, like we go through a ton of like chicken broth, for instance, or beef broth, and so we all buy a new mega pack of that. And then I have to bring the old stuff from the back in front to try and, you know, have the stuff that I should use soonest, closest kind of thing. But then you'll get like cans of soup that are been there for sometimes 15 years.

Laura: Stock rotation is important for sure. Yeah.

Greg: Right. So do you have any favorite recipes or things to do with food, leftovers or scraps?

Laura: I think there's some apps where you can scan the food in your fridge or your pantry, or you can enter the foods that you have and the apps will give you great recipes. So, for instance, after Thanksgiving, everybody's kind of turkey-ed out but you always have a little bit of leftover turkey. So I try to make like a pasta turkey, mac and cheese, that kind of thing. Those types of casseroles are usually pretty great for using up some stuff you might find hidden in your fridge.

Michelle: I think my go-to is always banana bread. Somehow we always end up with one banana that's turning a little bit too dark. You put it in the freezer.

Greg: One banana? You're lucky.

Michelle: Yeah, the freezer is packed.

Laura: It's banana pancakes on Saturday mornings at my place to use up the bananas for sure.

Greg: I would probably have at least a dozen frozen bananas. I'm thinking maybe even 20 frozen bananas right now. But they do get used up, so freeze your yogurt and the bananas make a smoothie. Problem solved.

Michelle: There you go.

Laura: Perfect idea.

Michelle: Laura, I really appreciate … well, we really appreciate you being here.

Greg: Yeah. Really appreciate it.

Laura: Yeah. Great. It's been my pleasure.

Michelle: After speaking with Laura, we were curious to learn more about food waste in Canada. So we reached out to Sophie, a food waste expert.

Sophie: I'm Sophie Langlois-Blouin. I'm Vice-President of RECYC-QUÉBEC and I'm also a board member of the National Zero Waste Council.

Michelle: We're happy to have you here, Sophie. Thanks for joining us.

Greg: So, Sophie, how bad of a problem is food waste in Canada?

Sophie: The National Zero Waste Council did a study a few years back and we found out that 63% of the food Canadian households throw away is considered avoidable. So it was edible at some point before it was put into the organics collection or in the bin. And for the average household, avoidable food waste amounts to 4.5 meals per week, which is the equivalent of $1,300 per year. So I would say it's significant. And for Canada, altogether, avoidable food waste from households amounts to 2.3 million tonnes per year. So yeah, it's a lot of food that should have been eaten before going to landfill or composting, for example.

Michelle: So do we know if food waste is mostly a consumer issue, or is it like a bigger issue at other places in the supply chain?

Sophie: We see food loss and waste across the food chain, so there's food loss and waste at the production level. Distribution transformation retail also do have a part in this, but it's a bigger issue than that. So that's why we need collective efforts. And those collective efforts are needed and every sector has to contribute in order to reduce food loss and waste in Canada.

Greg: Do you have any kind of top tips for people looking to avoid food waste?

Sophie: I have a lot of tips. The Love Food Hate Waste Campaign and the website which is available, available in French and English, offers a lot of tips. But I wrote down five that I want to share with you.

The first one is plan for the right amount. So it looks it looks simple, but it's something you could do at home. For example, you have guests over instead of serving everyone a portion, you can just serve the meal family style so everyone can get the portion they want. And I find this particularly useful with kids. For instance, when you serve them smaller portions first and then if they really like the food you serve, then they can have more. So it lessens the food you have to throw away.

For example, reheat leftovers and make sure that your leftovers are easily seen in the fridge. So for instance, you can put them at the on the on the shelf that is at your side level so you don't forget you have leftovers because leftovers are one of the food we throw away at home after vegetables and fruits. So make sure that you use your leftovers and freeze them if you don't think you will heat them in the following days.

And the freezer is really your best friend for everything. I think most of the food can be frozen, so it's a good also a good way to have, for example, fruits. We have berries that are produced in Canada, in Quebec, for example, in the summer. So freeze them and you will have them during winter, for example, for smoothies or muffins. So that's a good. The freezer is really a good friend.

The other thing I would say is to store well, so make sure that you put the food in the right place. So if it's in the cupboard, on the counter, in the fridge. On the Love Food, Hate Waste website we have instructions for different type of foods, and how long you can put them on the counter or in the fridge. So that's a good tool to look up and use your senses.

Greg: Yeah, you're right on with the freezer. Those are some great tips. My favorite is frozen grapes. I discovered them a couple of years ago, and it just… I don't know. It makes them sweeter. I like green ones better, but seedless grapes are frozen game changer.

Michelle: I've never done that.

Michelle: That's a good one. Really good. Yeah. It's like a popsicle.

Greg: Yeah. Yeah, it's…The texture is kind of like when it's super frozen. It's a little bit hard, but when it, when it thaws just a little bit, it's just. Oh yeah, it's really, really nice.

Michelle: So Sophie, can you tell us a bit about the work you are doing in collaboration with the Love Food, Hate Waste campaign?

Sophie: Yes. RECYC-Québec has been a partner in the campaign since its beginning in 2018. So it's a Canadian campaign that is overseen by the National Zero Waste Council. And right now we're engaging local governments or municipalities into the campaign. So we have a few cities in the province of Quebec that are coming into the campaign. And so we're going to work together in order to increase awareness about food loss and waste and make sure that citizens in the province have the tips and tools in order to reduce food waste at home.

Michelle: Thanks for joining us.

Sophie: It was my pleasure.

Michelle: If you're looking for more info on date labelling, we've linked to a handy written guide in our description. If you're listening from the CFIA website, you'll find it by scrolling down to our "Learn more" section.

Greg: We've also inserted links to RECYC Québec, Love food, Hate waste, and Canada's National Zero Waste Council. On their websites, you'll find lots of creative tips to use up extra food, as well as recent initiatives in Canada to reduce food waste.

Michelle: This has been Inspect and Protect, the CFIA's official podcast.

[End of recording]

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