Food poisoning is unpleasant at the best of times, but particularly coming up to Christmas.
Symptoms include diarrhoea and vomiting, and it usually happens because of poor handling or not cooking something properly.
Additionally, consuming food past the ‘use by’ date can place you at risk of suffering.
The small dates stamped onto packaging have been a topic of interest this week after the Co-op became the first supermarket to sell food beyond the ‘best before’ date in an effort to reduce food wastage.
The retailer will sell dried and tinned food for 10p in a move to alleviate some of the 7.3 million tonnes of food the Food Standards Agency estimates the UK disposes of every year.
However, no food will be sold past the ‘use by’ date, which, along with ‘best before’ dates are required by European Union law.
But what is the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates?
“The ‘use by’ date is by far the most important date to focus on and definitely not one to ignore,” said Lily Soutter, a leading London nutritionist (lilysoutternutrition.com).
“Consuming food past this date could put your health at risk.
Soutter explained it is commonly found on quick-to-expire fresh and chilled foods such as meat and fish.
It is even more crucial to abide by the ‘use by’ date and never eat, cook or freeze food after this point since your sense of smell at detecting gone off produce won’t help.
“Unfortunately when it comes to the use by date you can’t trust the sniff test,” she explained.
“Food can in fact look and smell perfectly normal, but this doesn’t mean that it’s safe to eat.”
The ‘best before’ date, however, is about the quality of the food rather than the safety, and tend to be found on frozen, tinned or dried foods.
“It’s important to remember that food can be consumed safely after the ‘best before’ date, however it will lose some its flavour and texture,” explained Soutter.
Where this may become even more confusing, she noted, is with eggs.
“Eggs in fact have a shelf life of 29 days – from the date laid to best before date – and the law states that eggs must reach the consumer within 21 days after having been laid,” she explained.
“This date is often referred to as the ‘sell by’ date, in other words shops need to sell the eggs by this date. This then gives the consumer a minimum of seven days to use the eggs by the ‘best before’ date.”
She warned that after the ‘best before’ date not only does the quality of eggs deteriorate, but there is a risk of food poisoning is salmonella bacteria is present.
Soutter said for any kind of food it was vital to follow the storage instructions on the packaging, and suggested extending the shelf-life of food by freezing.
“Freezing acts as a pause button and most foods can be frozen, even previously cooked meat,” she explained.
“As the quality of frozen food deteriorates over time it’s best to consume within 3-6 months.”
She suggested that when you want to cook, defrost in the fridge overnight, use within 24 hours and heat until steaming hot.