- Wasteful Britons are said to dump more than seven million tonnes of food a year
- Some of this is inevitable but 4.4million tonnes are in 'avoidable waste'
- FEMAIL gathered ageing foodstuffs and sent them to a laboratory for tests
Published: 22:00 GMT, 6 February 2018 | Updated: 22:01 GMT, 6 February 2018
The label has faded to illegibility, there’s a shameful layer of dust on the lid, and the ‘best before’ stamp predates your firstborn child.
Who hasn’t got some of these ancient food relics hanging around at the back of the cupboard, or buried deep in the chest freezer?
So, what should you do with a can of six-years-out-of-date tuna? Most of us, unsurprisingly, favour caution. Throwaway Britons are said to dump more than seven million tonnes of food every year.
While some of this is inevitable (tea bags, bones etc), 4.4 million tonnes is ‘avoidable waste’ — food that could have been eaten. That’s enough to provide six meals a week for the average family — and save them £700 a year.
Most of us, unsurprisingly, favour caution. Throwaway Britons are said to dump more than seven million tonnes of food every year
One reason for the colossal food waste mountain is the confusing hotchpotch of labels that tell us whether something is still all right to eat — ‘sell by’, ‘best before’, ‘display until’ and so on. So, what do they all mean?
‘Use by’ is very clear, and typically found on meat and fresh foods that spoil quickly. But ‘best before’ is usually just a mark of quality such as flavour and texture. Meanwhile, ‘sell by’ and ‘display until’ dates are aimed at encouraging storekeepers to shift stock.
But often tinned foods and dried pasta and flour are binned when they reach these dates, because consumers think they are unsafe or as stores clear their shelves of old stock.
Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Food Standards Agency and waste advisory charity Wrap introduced new guidelines saying that ‘use by’ dates should only be put on foods that pose a health risk if kept for too long. Yet still, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food are being binned unnecessarily.
In December, some branches of Co-Op tried to tackle the problem by selling off food past its ‘best before’ date at a nominal price of 10p, with store bosses estimating this could save 50,000-plus items every year from the bin. But is frugality really safe? FEMAIL gathered ageing foodstuffs found gathering dust at the back of various people’s cupboards (including a 17-year-old, opened jar of chilli powder, and a bottle of beer that can remember Tony Blair in Number 10) and sent them off to a laboratory for microbiological testing.
Microbiologist Richard Page, of Alliance Technical Laboratories, looked for a host of nasties, including the potentially deadly bacteria E.coli, salmonella, listeria and Clostridium perfringens, as well as for yeasts and moulds, which affect food quality but aren’t necessarily unsafe to eat.
Then food technologist Brian Smith, of Booth Smith Food Technology, analysed the results — and reached a very surprising conclusion . . .
Fiddes Payne Bicarbonate of Soda
Best before: June 2009. Given that bicarb is, in essence, a chemical compound, it is perhaps not surprising that no nasties were found lurking in here. ‘The shelf life of bicarbonate of soda will be almost indefinite,’ says Brian Smith.
It will, however, slowly lose its ‘gassing power’, which is what makes it useful as a raising agent in baking.
You could always put it to another use — bicarb is renowned for its usefulness as a household cleaner.
GOOD TO EAT? Perfectly safe, but your scones might come out a bit flat.
Old El Paso Refried Beans
There’s a reason canning has been a popular way of preserving food for the best part of two centuries
Best before: March 2009. There’s a reason canning has been a popular way of preserving food for the best part of two centuries. Canned food is subjected to a very high heat process to kill bacteria, and once sealed the contents are effectively sterile.
‘These beans will have been sterilised, which is like putting them in a pressure cooker at over 100c,’ says Brian. Not surprisingly, no microbes, mould or yeast were found.
Sterilisation means heating to very high temperatures, killing all microbes. In 1974, tins of food from the wreck of a U.S. steamboat that sank in 1865 were tested. There had been a deterioration in appearance and vitamin content, but scientists found they were safe to eat.
GOOD TO EAT? Yes.
First State pineapple pieces in syrup
Rather than being sterilised, tinned fruit is usually pasteurised at a temperature of at least 95C
Best before: December 2006. Rather than being sterilised, tinned fruit is usually pasteurised at a temperature of at least 95C. The acidity of the fruit combined with the heat renders the tinned product sterile. ‘Pineapple in a tin should last for a good many years,’ says Brian. ‘It’s well known to be very stable.’
GOOD TO EAT? Yes
Waitrose Biryani Cooking Sauce
Best before: February 2008. As with tins, food in a jar is usually either sterilised or pasteurised. After nine years, this smelled OK, and didn’t have a trace of hazardous microbes. In time, though, it would start to become unpalatable.
‘You would expect it to slowly deteriorate and develop slightly off flavours,’ says Brian Smith. ‘A sauce like this probably has about 10 per cent fats and oils in it, and these can give it a rancid taste — it doesn’t necessarily mean food is harmful, just that it tastes horrid.’
GOOD TO EAT? Probably — after a good long sniff.
Princes Tuna In Lime & Black Pepper Dressing
Best before: November 2006. While you might baulk at the idea, there is no reason to be any more concerned with fish than other tinned products. Again, the canning process kept the fish entirely bug-free.
Tuna, a naturally oily fish, prepared in oil is, says Brian, very stable. But the fat content could cause it to develop a funny smell or taste, in which case it’s best avoided.
GOOD TO EAT? Safe, but it wouldn’t get past the tastebuds of your more discerning dinner guests. Best ditch.
Kingfisher Shredded Crab Meat
Best before: December 2014. Fishy it may be, but with very little fat, it’s absolutely fine.
GOOD TO EAT? Yes. As fresh as the day it was canned.
Sainsbury’s Spanish Paella Rice
One issue that can affect the shelf life of rice is the natural crystallisation of the starch within each grain
Best before: October 2009. This sealed packet was none the worse for nine years in the larder. No bacteria or mould whatsoever.
One issue that can affect the shelf life of rice, says Brian, is the natural crystallisation of the starch within each grain, which can give a stale taste.
Rice can also be preyed on by tiny bugs called rice weevils. If you spot any movement, throw rice away and give your cupboard a good clean.
Expired brown rice is easier to spot. It may become oily and give off a rancid odour because its essential fatty acids go bad as they react with the air.
GOOD TO EAT? Yes.
Best before: December 2015. The contents of this tin may sound less than appealing, but it was still in perfect condition microbiologically.
Even so, an ageing tin like this gives off a bit of a whiff due to the natural deterioration of the fats within — especially as foie gras is very fatty.
GOOD TO EAT? Safe but unsavoury so best not. Trust your senses — if something smells bad or tastes bad, don’t eat it.
Bisto Roast Chicken Gravy
A dried food like gravy powder is hygroscopic, which means it absorbs water from the atmosphere
Best before: March 2010. The issue with a dried product like this, especially an open jar like this one, is less likely to be a microbiological hazard than something immediately obvious.
A dried food like gravy powder is hygroscopic, which means it absorbs water from the atmosphere.
The result? That irritating clumping often associated with jars of instant coffee.
Gravy powder, says Brian, is typically high in salt, which is a natural preservative and will protect from microbiological or organic growth. However, consumers do need to be aware that there is a danger of cross-contamination if you dip dirty spoons into any opened product.
GOOD TO EAT? Perfectly — you will just need a firm hand to chip it out of the jar!
Sainsbury’s Mild Chilli Powder
Best before: July 2000. Unlike gravy powder, chilli powder is not hygroscopic and doesn’t clump. It could support microbial growth, but chilli has antimicrobial qualities that render this less likely. This one was as good as the day it was bought. Indeed, its owner used it to make a vegetable chilli a week before, with no ill-effects.
GOOD TO EAT? Yes.
Fraoch Heather Ale
Tasting notes on the bottle promise ‘light toasty flavours of heather, herbs, spice and perhaps peat’ a ‘herbal finish’ and a ‘pleasantly sweet after-taste’
Best before: October 2002. Tasting notes on the bottle promise ‘light toasty flavours of heather, herbs, spice and perhaps peat’ a ‘herbal finish’ and a ‘pleasantly sweet after-taste.’
However, as any seasoned beer drinker will know, yeast continues to ferment even after a drink has been bottled. This secondary fermentation can produce delicious tastes in the case of prosecco or Champagne. However, in an ale it is less than desirable.
As a result, our laboratory team knew what to expect when they tested our ale. The smell on opening was overpowering, while one who was brave enough to venture a sip noted an immediate ‘unpleasant after-taste’.
GOOD TO DRINK? Definitely not.
Waitrose Braising Beef
According to food technologist Brian, all meat deteriorates when frozen
Use by: Frozen in April 2016, use within one month of freezing. Buried at the back of the freezer, the meat in this packet was invisible under a blanket of ice.
Scientists cooked it in boiling water — to replicate the suggested cooking method for braising beef — to assess what it was like after it had been cooked. The layer of ‘freezer burn’, the pale rind that frozen food develops when water seeps out and turns to ice, disappeared and the beef, says microbiologist Richard Page, was ‘tender’ and ‘normal’ to taste.
‘If you had it side by side with a fresh piece of beef cooked in the same way, and you were being really critical, you could probably detect some differences,’ he says. ‘But was it edible? Yes, it was absolutely edible.’
According to food technologist Brian, all meat deteriorates when frozen. He adds: ‘The worst enemy of frozen food is temperature fluctuation, if the conditions go from minus 20 to minus 10, up and down, it will deteriorate organoleptically — which means across all aspects of taste, flavour and colour.’
GOOD TO EAT? Yes, and very nice it was too.
So what do the experts have to say?
With the exception of aged ale, the consumer might well ask why we bother with a best before date at all? All the foodstuffs we tested were perfectly safe to eat.
‘All of the best before dates you are looking at would absolutely not be for bacterial risk. The reasoning behind them would be due to quality,’ says Richard Page.
‘It may be the manufacturer knows that after a certain period of time there is a certain degradation in the taste or the flavour, colour or smell.’
Or it might just be because they want to sell more pine-apple chunks.
Meanwhile, Brian Smith says food manufacturers do give ‘quite a margin of error’ when setting best before dates — in some cases as much as 50 per cent.
So while ‘use by’ dates should always be adhered to, ‘best before’ is more an indicator of quality than a health alarm bell.
Under European Union law, it is illegal for shops to sell produce that is beyond its ‘use-by’ date, but they can sell produce past its ‘best-before’ date.
Andrew Parry, special adviser on food and drink at waste charity WRAP, says: ‘While we suggest eating foods within their “Best Before” date to ensure the highest quality, it’s important to remember that it is merely is a quality indicator, and products with this label can be safely consumed after this date.
‘However, for cans and jars of food that may have been in your cupboard for a long time, you should make sure the packaging is undamaged and seals intact before using them.’
So would our scientists eat groceries past their best before dates from their own cupboards?
Food technologist Brian says: ‘I would open it, smell it, and if it smells reasonable have a taste. If it tastes OK, I would eat it.’
Microbiologist Richard Page insists he would always follow the manufacturer’s recommendation. ‘However, it is a shame to waste food that can be eaten. If you are happy to risk it, it’s not going to hurt you.’