Misconceptions of labelling on food products are explained

There is a common misconception about when the right time is to discard food believed to be past its expiry date.

This, according to David Watson, chairperson of the Food Advisory Consumer Service (FACS), who believes people often confuse the “best before” date of products with its expiry date.

FACS is a voluntary organisation financed by the South African Association for Food Science and Technology, in partnership with the South African National Consumer Union, the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, the Nutrition Society of South Africa and the Department of Health and Directorate Food Control. It aims to provide consumers with accurate scientific information on food and nutrition.

In an interview on Cape Talk last month (August), Watson explained the difference, stating that the “best before” date printed on products “talks to the quality” of that particular product, and not food safety. The manufacturer sets the “best before” date after supposedly conducting accelerated shelf life trials. “With the best before date, the manufacturer states that up until that particular date, they can guarantee the perfect flavour and quality,” Watson said.

“But they are not talking about food safety. The only time a food safety issue should be taken into account is when it has reached a ‘use by’ date, and it is usually done with highly perishable products like chicken.”

He further stressed that canned products have no expiry dates, only “best before” dates. Food that has specific storage conditions, like those that need to be stored in chilled conditions, may have expiry dates.

Furthermore, Watson said fruit and vegetables are, by law, not required to be branded with a “best before” or “expiry” date, but some retailers have started doing so with these products. “With fruit and vegetables, we often use our common sense – you look at the product, you feel it, you taste it or smell it and you make a decision to eat it or not,” he said.

“Why can’t you do that with food which you have stored properly and have not broken the cold chain? It’s ludicrous to assume that because it is past the hour, it would suddenly poison you.”

When it comes to canned foods, Watson said, these products have been specifically heat treated and pneumatically sealed. “The chance of anything going wrong is minor,” he explained, “you would have to have a puncture hole in the can to have it go off.”

There are two categories of canned foods, Watson said. The first type is one where you would open it and eat it fresh, like canned tuna or olives, which you can open, smell and taste it to identify whether it is edible.

The second type is one which would need to be cooked, like a mince mix. “Once you are going to cook something, then the chances of it harming you are even more minute because no microbe will survive a temperature of 68 degrees,” Watson said.

On the topic of frozen foods, he said microbes can survive in freezing conditions, apart from listeria, which will also eventually be killed in the cooking process.

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