Years ago I picked up a case of food poisoning after attending a potluck supper. It was awful. I was so weak I had to crawl to the phone to ask a friend to come help me, and I slept on the bathroom floor. I became pretty conscientious about food safety: Always wash your fruits and vegetables; always cook meat & fish thoroughly; refrigerate perishables & leftovers promptly and throw them away after no more than 2 days or when they pass their date; adhere to best before/use by/expiry dates on any and every product that has one…..
Then I travelled to West Africa and saw mayonnaise stored on the counter. WHAT?! Turns out commercial mayonnaise is so acidic, food-borne pathogens don’t grow in it even when you PUT them in it intentionally. (Homemade mayonnaise is a different matter altogether.) So while I do still store my mayonnaise in the fridge out of habit, I also don’t panic if I forget. (Click here to learn more)
They also kept their eggs on the counter. While your eggs, especially storebought, will last longer in the fridge, if your eggs are farm fresh, unwashed, and you use them regularly then the counter at room temperature is fine too. And its easy to check if your egg is “good” or not: fill a tall cup 2/3 full of water. Gently place the egg in it. If it floats, it has gone bad; if it sinks to the bottom it is still good. If at least one part of the egg is touching the bottom of the cup the egg is still usable although not the freshest.
Meat & dairy products have always scared me though. Those stamped dates mean something right? If I cook the chicken the day after the stamp says, I’ll get sick when I eat it right? I purchased a beautiful piece of fresh salmon on the weekend. Then I got called out to a birth and by the time I was home again to cook a meal, the salmon was one day past the ‘best before’. It looked fine. It smelled fine. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away if I didn’t have to. So I started looking into what exactly those date stamps really mean…. it turns out that when it comes to food safety they mean NOTHING! And I mean that literally. Manufacturers set the dates based on how long they believe the product will remain optimal in terms of texture, taste, appearance, nutritional quality etc. But the product could very well spoil before the stamped date AND it can remain safely usable for some time past the best before date. Items like infant formula & nutritional supplements have an expiry date, which is different, to indicate how long the manufacturer believes the product will maintain optimal nutrition, since people using those products tend to be dependent on them so maintaining nutritional standards is important.
What does all this mean in terms of the salmon in my fridge? The Canadian powers-that-be say we should NOT trust our eyes & noses to determine if food is safe or not, because salmonella & e-coli can’t be detected by sight or smell. They’re right about that. So we should note that there are two different issues at play here: contamination and spoilage. Your senses will certainly alert you to signs of spoilage (it smells off, the colour is funny, it goes slimy or moldy, etc). If your food seems off, regardless of what the date stamp says, proceed with caution! And food that has been contaminated is contaminated regardless of the date stamp, so good food preparation practices are essential regardless.
You can help protect against salmonella by following these tips, and against e-coli by following these ones.
“When in doubt throw it out” is of course the safest approach, and is especially worthwhile if you are immune-compromised or suffer from a digestive disorder. But with a little bit of knowledge, we can decrease the doubt, reduce waste, and save money, while still making safe healthy choices.
1. Buy fresh foods that look, smell, and feel fresh.
2. For packaged goods, choose ones with a farther away date stamp, recognizing that as long as the packaging is undamaged and unopened the contents will remain edible FAR past their date stamp, even if they might not be optimal in taste, texture, appearance, or nutritional content.
3. Wash & store food properly & promptly.
4. Prepare food properly.
5. Keep an eye out for signs of spoilage on all foods - fresh, frozen, canned, packaged etc, date-stamped or not - and proceed with caution if you suspect contamination or spoilage.
Want specifics on how long products typically last past their date stamp? Check out this article by nutritionist Leslie Beck, or visit stilltasty.
P.S. I cooked the salmon. I enjoyed the salmon. I did not get sick.
Who I Am...
Wife. Mother. Birthkeeper. Reflexologist. Herbalist & aromatherapist in the wise woman tradition.