MS Explains: Why food can still be eaten after it has ‘expired' & how to reduce food waste

It’s time for us to step up to the plate. 

Claire M Teo | February 28, 2022, 02:30 AM

Opening the door of my refrigerator, I am greeted by an array of food. The fridge is bursting with joy and colour from the abundance within — some of which have remained untouched in its belly for months, only to be consumed by the trash can.

From discarding half-eaten meals in the name of “I’m too full” to disposing of unconsumed food that may have gone slightly past the expiration date, food wastage is a common but detrimental occurrence. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce it.

The truth about “expiry” dates

Although we consider the dates printed on food packages to be an integral part of determining whether food is still edible, these dates rarely reflect the actual condition and safety of our food products.

Why are food products marked with such dates then? You might ask.

Most dates printed on the food we buy are meant to offer a rough indication of when our products are freshest, encouraging us to consume our purchased food items before the dates provided.

In Singapore, we would commonly encounter different types of labels while doing our grocery shopping — typically "use by" and "best before" — but do we truly understand how these labels differ?

Image via Claire Teo

“Use by” vs “Best before”

Generally, “best before” labels indicate the quality of food products, while “use by” labels serve as a health and safety precaution.

As stated by the Singapore Food Agency, “Use by” labels are typically found on perishables such as dairy and fish. These items should, as much as possible, be consumed by the dates indicated as they tend to turn rancid at a quicker rate than other types of food.

Eating food that has gone past its “use by” date can be detrimental to our health. For example, consuming yoghurt that has gone past the “use by” date could cause food poisoning and result in adverse symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, stomach ache and diarrhoea.

On the other hand, foods with “best before” labels are usually tinned, frozen or dried and have longer shelf lives. According to The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), these products can be consumed past the specified dates as long as they are stored properly, but the texture and flavour may begin to deteriorate.

Let's take slightly stale biscuits as an example. It would be alright for you to consume them; the only difference would be that the biscuits wouldn’t be as crunchy as they would be if they were eaten fresh.

How are the expiry dates of food products determined?

There is no blanket approach for determining the “best before” and “use by'' dates of products. One way is to put specimens of food through various simulated conditions — conditions that replicate the storage and transport processes, for example — and observe for changes in taste, texture, and smell as well as the presence of food-spoiling microbes.

Then, in the accelerated testing phase, various factors like temperature are tweaked to induce food deterioration. That’s one way of determining a food product’s “use by'' date.

But even with scientific methods like the one above, the expiry date given to that loaf of bread in the supermarket might not be 100 per cent accurate.

As explained by Londa Nwadike, an Assistant Professor of Food Safety at the University Of Missouri, food manufacturers typically set the expiration dates of their products earlier than the intended dates — possibly to avoid any legal liabilities related to food poisoning.

This is why most foods, especially those marked with “best before” labels, will remain safe to consume for several days or even weeks after the dates indicated, if they are handled and stored under the required conditions.

Can’t finish your food before the expiry date? Here are a few options for you:

First, you may consider extending the shelf lives of your excess food items and consuming them later on. This can be achieved in a number of ways.

Freezing food items like meat and vegetables immediately after purchase can maintain the freshness of your products, since bacteria and mould have difficulty thriving in very cold conditions.

Another way of extending the shelf life of food items such as cucumber and tomatoes is to keep them in airtight containers to reduce the likelihood of contamination.

Smartphone apps like FoodKeeper can provide detailed instructions on how to store and handle different kinds of food correctly so that your items maintain an optimal level of freshness and quality, thereby extending their shelf lives. FoodKeeper also has a nifty “Add To Calendar” function to help you keep track of how long your products would last — a useful function for those who rely on digital calendars for reminders.

Screenshot via FoodKeeper app

Next, you could explore giving your excess food to others who may require it.

Olio is a free app that allows users to give away their items. It is frequently used for food donation. The process is simple. You can start by posting a picture of your excess food items on such platforms and waiting for someone to pick them up at a convenient time and location. This would not only free up some space in your refrigerator but also benefit someone else.

Screenshot via Olio app

Alternatively, you can donate your extra food to the Food Bank Singapore (FBSG), a local charity which supports beneficiaries who may be experiencing food insecurity. This way, you can decrease food wastage and do good at the same time.

The FBSG partners various family service centres, soup kitchens, and other Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs) to support those in need. It accepts dry or packaged food items with an expiration date of at least four weeks. These items can be deposited into various donation boxes located around Singapore.

What to do with “expired” food at home

While it may be tempting to immediately throw out food that has gone past the “expiration” date, there are other more eco-friendly practices to consider.

For a start, you might still be able to consume expired food — as long as it is safe for consumption.

Local charity organisation, SG Food Rescue, recommends a general rule of thumb that food should not be consumed if it emits a foul odour, has drastic changes in appearance and texture, or tastes off. In such instances, it is best not to consume these foods as they may upset your stomach — ouch.

Fruits and vegetables that are no longer edible can also be recycled as compost. Composting is a cheap and relatively convenient process to generate fertiliser for your plants at home. You can do this by setting up your very own DIY compost bins in sheltered areas, using plastic or metal containers.

The compost bins should be fitted with tiny ventilation holes and placed in well-ventilated locations to facilitate aerobic composting. Once your compost has turned an earthy brown colour and has broken down into small soil-like particles, it's ready to use.

Here is a video demonstration by NParks on how to correctly set up a compost bin.

Some charities, like SG Food Rescue, also take in food items that have passed their indicated “best before” or “use by” dates. SG Food Rescue has a network of beneficiaries who have indicated that they are willing to consume food that may have gone slightly past the dates on their labels.

Dedicated to reducing food waste in Singapore, SG Food Rescue collects “ugly” foods that may have been removed from supermarket shelves by wholesalers as well as “expired” food. This is carried out on an ad-hoc basis, as and when requests are received. Collecting and distributing these “expired” food items also allows the organisation to educate consumers about food expiry dates.

The safety of a food product is not solely dependent on the expiry date printed on it. Learning how to store and handle food effectively can extend the shelf life of a product by weeks, maybe even months. Even if a food product has gone past its expiry date, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be eaten or that it is not useful.

Mother Nature is just as dependent on us as we are on her. Perhaps it's time for us to step up to the plate.

Top image by Claire Teo.