December 7, 2017

Food Safety: Best Before Dates

This Food Safety article originally appeared in full on Health Inspector’s Notebook, a website by Jim Chan, a retired Toronto Public Health Inspector. Jim has generously agreed to share his knowledge and expertise with us here on the FoodReach site.

Do you pay attention to “best before” and “expiry date” labels on foods before buying?  

Many consumers check the “best before” or “expiry date” labels on food packages before buying them. A best before date is the manufacturer’s message to the consumer that the food will be fresh and of the highest quality and nutrient value as listed on the label. After that date, the food may still be safe but the promise of freshness is no longer stand. The best advise for consumers is to read the best before date and if the date has already passed, don’t buy it and look for another fresher product.

What is the difference between a best before date (or use by date) and an expiry date?

Information from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website (CFIA – Food Label: Date Codes) advisory on Date Labelling on Pre-packaged Foods :


  • “Best before” dates and proper storage instructions (if they differ from normal room temperature) must appear on pre-packaged foods that will keep fresh for 90 days or less, and are packaged at a place other than the retail store from which they are sold.
  • “Best before” dates do not guarantee product safety. However, they do give you information about the freshness and potential shelf-life of the unopened foods you are buying.
  • Retail-packed foods that have a durable life date of 90 days or less must be labelled with
    • the packaging date (known as “packaged on” date); and
    • the durable life* of the food on the label or on a poster next to the food (durable life can be expressed several ways, for example, the number of days a product will retain its freshness or may be applied as a “best before” date).


  • Expiration dates must be used on the following products:
    • formulated liquid diets (a nutritionally complete diet for persons using oral or tube feeding methods)
    • foods represented for use in a very low-energy diet (foods sold only by a pharmacist and only with a written order from a physician)
    • meal replacements (a formulated food that, by itself, can replace one or more daily meals)
    • nutritional supplements (a food sold or represented as a supplement to a diet that may be inadequate in energy and essential nutrients)
    • human milk substitutes (infant formula)
  • After the expiry date, the food may not have the same nutrient content declared on the label. Food should not be eaten if the expiration date has passed. They should be discarded.


  • The Food and Drug Regulations state the terms “use by” and “employez avant” may replace “best before” for pre-packaged fresh yeast only.
  • It must be presented in the same form and manner as the “best before” date.

What does a best before (or use by) date and an expiry date tell the consumer?

In general, a best before date tells consumer about the freshness and shelf life of unopened food in the original package, once the package is opened, there is no guarantee the food will have the same nutritional value, taste or texture. Some food can be frozen to keep beyond its best-before date, but consumers should contact manufacturers for information about freezing and storing period of the products.

However, an expiry date tells consumer that the food maintains its microbiological and physical stability, as well as the nutrient content listed on the label. It is important to use the food before the expiry date to avoid potential food safety risk and to get the most nutritional value from it. Also, food may still smell or taste fine after the expiry date has passed but it can be risky, so consumer should use their judgment weather they want to use the food. Best recommendation is ”when in doubt, throw it out”.

Jim Chan  

About Jim:

Jim Chan
Certified Public Health Inspector, Canada

Jim Chan began his career as a Public Health Inspector at Toronto Public Health in 1977 after completing his science degree at University of Guelph and the Environmental Health program at Ryerson University. Throughout his 36-year career, Jim has been responsible for managing and implementing programs and activities dedicated to the protection of public health. Programs such as Food Safety Inspection (DineSafe Toronto), Communicable Disease Control (including case management during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and health & safety during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009), Infection Control, Tobacco Control Enforcement and Health Hazard Investigation.

Jim retired on October 31, 2013 from Toronto Public Health. After retirement, Jim began an interesting career as a food safety consultant to media outlets & on-air guest in various TV shows, presenting at conferences and workshops, developing food safety training materials, and promoting public health and food safety using social media. Jim’s recent adventure is teaching a food safety course to public health inspectors at Conestoga College, School of Health & Life Sciences in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

You can follow Jim online at:
Twitter: @phijimchan