Jane keeps her eggs in the fridge and her tomatoes in a bowl on the bench, but Greg keeps his tomatoes in the crisper bin in his fridge and his eggs in the pantry. And my bacon has a use by date and but my biscuits have a best before date.
So is Jane right or is Greg, does it matter, and what is the deal with these different dates?
When it comes to food storage there are two main issues – safety and quality. So, let’s take a look at how to get the best out of what you buy and stay healthy at the same time.
The biggest concern with food safety is foodborne illnesses – nasties such as
salmonella, campylobacter, listeriosis and so on. Although there is a perception that most such illnesses are contracted from eating food prepared in restaurants, cafeterias and bars, the reality is that home is where the harm is. A study carried out by researchers at the University of Wales in 2003 found that "over the past decade, up to 87 percent of reported foodborne illness outbreaks in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada have been associated with food prepared or eaten at home."
The New Zealand Food and Safety Authority (NZFSA) website says that there are an estimated 200,000 or more cases of food borne illness each year, and our incidence of campylobacter infection is three times higher than Australia and twice that of the United Kingdom. While many people are familiar with issues of food handling and cooking when it comes to health and safety – clean, cook, cover and chill – how and where you store your food is also important.
First, just what do those date labels mean?
Under the food labelling regulations, products with a shelf-life of less than two years must display a "best before" or "use by" date. Safety and quality are the two issues that determine which date is carried by certain foods.
The “use by” date relates to food safety. For health reasons, food with a “use by date” can be safely eaten before that date as long as it has been stored according to the conditions stated on the packaging. The NZSFA says that food shouldn’t be eaten after that date and must not be sold after that date. However, once you open the food, the use by date is invalid and it may have a life of only a few days in your fridge, depending on the type of food it is.
The “best before” date relates to food quality and indicates when food should be eaten to ensure it is at its best. Foods with this sort of label can be sold after the date given as long as it is still fit for eating.
Manufacturers are required to provide storage and use instructions, including information on how quickly the food should be eaten after it is opened. Unfortunately, according to a Consumer Online report not all manufacturers actually provide this information.
Fridge or Pantry? And for how long?
Much of the food we buy has storage instructions – particularly if it has to be stored in the refrigerator. Generally, we have a clear idea whether an item should be stored in the fridge or pantry. However, beyond that “where?” decision there are a few things worth paying attention to.
When it comes to your fridge and freezer, temperature is the crucial thing; your fridge should be between 2ºC and 4ºC and your freezer between -15ºC and -18ºC. Although it is unlikely that many people will remember to check the temperature daily, as the NZSFA recommends, it would pay to check it regularly just to ensure the temperature is at the safest level.
Then the NZFSA has some practical guidelines on other things…
NZFSA guidelines for storing food in the fridge, freezer and pantry.
Don’t let meat and chicken juices drip onto other foods – store them on the bottom shelf.
Cover all cooked foods.
Eggs should be stored in the fridge.
Meats should be marinated in a covered container in the fridge, not on the bench.
Leftover hot food should be put in the fridge as soon as it has stopped steaming; hot food will cool more quickly if put into a shallow dish.
Only store leftovers or cooked food in the fridge for two days – if it is not used by then, throw it out.
Leftovers must be reheated until steaming hot and must not be reheated more than once.
Only freeze fresh, good quality food – freezing will not kill pathogens in food.
Only freeze small amounts of food at a time – otherwise the middle of the food might not get frozen quickly enough.
Raw food should only be frozen once – don’t refreeze after thawing.
Cooked food should only be frozen once.
Keep foods in airtight containers or bags.
Keep foods covered.
Keep shelves clean – crumbs and spills attract pests.
Then there is the question of containers. Store your food in clean, non-toxic and leak-proof containers. Make sure that food is covered so that nothing can leak or spill out and undesirable things (insects, pathogens, other food) can’t get in. Don’t put open cans in the fridge; transfer unused canned food into another container for storing.
Food stored in your freezer should be kept in leak-proof, sealed, moisture and vapour-proof containers that are strong and flexible at low temperatures, and odourless and tasteless. Don’t forget to label it with the contents and date, and make sure you rotate your frozen food using the older items first.
What About the Non-Meat and Non-Dairy Foods?
Dry foods – canned foods, flour, pasta, rice, nuts, etc. – aren’t as fussy as meat and dairy. Any of these foods that come without a best before date should have a shelf life of two years or more if they are stored properly.
Generally storage of these items concerns quality not safety. All dry foods should be stored in a cool dry place in secure, good quality containers. Some foods, such as wholemeal flours and nuts, can go rancid because of the fat or oil content. If they taste stale don’t eat them or use them in baking. Although they don’t harbour the same pathogen problem (salmonella, campylobacter, etc.) rancid dry foods will have more free radicals that can cause oxidative damage in your body.
Canned foods shouldn’t be eaten if the can is damaged, rusty or dented and it is good practice to buy only cans in perfect condition. John Van den Beuken, Programme Manager of the NZFSA’s Joint Food Standards Group pointed out that dry and canned foods kept as emergency supplies, either domestically or in institutions, should be rotated regularly – he recommended every twelve months to ensure that they are okay to eat when they are needed.
Many preserved foods such as sauces, pickles, chutneys and relishes should be refrigerated after opening. Although they contain natural preservatives such as vinegar and salt, or chemical preservatives, many will ferment or deteriorate over time; they keep better and with greater safety in the fridge.
Fresh fruit and vegetables don’t come with best before dates but clearly they only last a few days in most cases. The test here is taste, and most will be unpleasant or unpalatable before they are dangerous. That being said, most veges should be kept in the fridge because quality is better preserved better – no-one lies wilted broccoli and carrots. Vegetables and fruit should be washed or cooked before eating to prevent listeria infection, especially if you are pregnant (see below).
How Long Can I Keep It?
A Consumer Online report on food safety says that the length of time you can safely keep food varies depending on “its water and protein content, its freshness and quality when you bought it, the temperature at which it has been stored, the type of pathogens likely to grow on the food, and your immune status.”
If you are pregnant, or have lowered immunity because you are unwell or undergoing medical treatment, you have to be more careful. But as a general guide for how long you can keep fresh or open prepacked foods in your fridge and freezer check out the table below.
Making sure your food is delicious and nutritious
By Sue Claridge
Fitness Life, Issue 25, July 2006, pg 36-38.
Food Storage in Pregnancy
When you are pregnant food safety is even more important. After all, it is not just you that you have to worry about. And while a bout of food “poisoning” may lay you low for a few days, it could harm your baby and even cause a miscarriage or still birth. For pregnant women the 4 Cs – clean, cook, cover, chill – are very important, and the above rules and guidelines for food storage apply during pregnancy. Listeria can grow on food even at refrigerator temperatures. For this reason, dairy products should be kept covered to prevent contamination and should be consumed within two days of opening, or used in cooked foods after that. You may want to buy butter, milk and cheeses in smaller quantities while you are pregnant. Wash or cook all vegetables and fruit.
With leftovers and opened canned foods you should store them clean, covered container in the fridge and eat them within two days – always reheat until steaming hot. All sauces and dressings should be stored in the fridge after opening.
As for those difficult questions – eggs should be kept in the fridge, and tomatoes… Well, that’s a matter of taste, but many people think they taste better at room temperature, although they will last longer in the fridge.
And some final good food advice:
Only buy meat, dairy and prepacked food that has use by or best before dates, and those foods which have storage advice on the label. Buy products with the longest use-by dates and don’t buy them if they are past the use by date.
Buy only as much food as you can reasonably use before the use by or best before date, unless you intend to freeze it.
Don’t eat food from damaged cans and rotate any dry foods that you have in emergency supplies.
Never taste food that looks or smells strange. If it looks and smells edible but tastes stale, don’t eat it. If in doubt, throw it out.
New Zealand Food Safety Authority www.nzfsa.govt.nz
Food Safety Partnership www.foodsafe.org.nz
Copyright © 2006 Sue Claridge