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Cooking confusion – a guide to food expiry dates

Winter means hot dinners, but food poisoning rates also spike. When should we toss food out? How do you cook a winter roast safely?

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Most food is legally required to list a best-by or use-by recommendation date on its packaging. But what do these phrases really mean and are they useful? Or do they lead to food waste as we dump food needlessly, costing millions of dollars? 

Some scientists say some foods are safe to eat past their 'best-before' date. Having said that, without knowing exactly what the phrases mean, it may be best to use caution. Food safety is a major issue in Australia, with 4.1 million people reporting food-related illnesses each year along with more than 30,000 hospitalisations, according to the national Food Safety Information Council.

To avoid these situations, experts say the most important thing to consider is whether a food is stamped with a 'use-by' or 'best-before' date.

Use-by dates

Use-by dates are dates marked on foods to advise shoppers that the food must be eaten before the marked date for safety reasons. These are given to perishable and potentially unsafe products such as milk, seafood, red meat, and chicken, which should never be eaten after their use-by due to the risk of food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and listeria.

Foods marked with a use-by date cannot legally be sold after the date marked. Eating foods after the use-by date is at your own risk.

Best-before dates

Best-before dates refer to the quality of the food. They are marked on foods which do not present food safety issues, but if these foods are eaten after the best-before date, they may have lost nutritional value and quality.

Foods can be sold after the best-before date provided they are fit for human consumption. These are commonly found on less perishable items such as spreads, sauces, and dried fruit, as well as dry staples including flour and pasta.

The only food that can have a different date mark on it is bread, which can be labelled with a ‘baked on’ or ‘baked for’ date if its shelf life is less than seven days.

Foods that have a shelf life of two years or longer, for example canned food, do not need to be labelled with a ‘best-before’ date. This is because it is difficult to give the consumer an accurate guide as to how long these foods will keep, as they will retain their quality for many years and are likely to be consumed well before they spoil.

Check marked down food with use-by dates to be sure it is within that date. If you cannot read the date marks or if they are covered by a sticker, for example a price mark down sticker, then ask the shopkeeper for the date or find a package with clearly visible markings.

Remember, if you freeze food that has a use-by date you should use it straight away after thawing as the use-by date marked will no longer be relevant.

You can learn more about use-by and best-before dates in this short video or in this article.

Winter roasts – preparing them safely

Whether you’re holding a Christmas in July dinner or just enjoying a Sunday roast, the Food Safety Information Council says there’s a “better to be safe than sorry” way to do it so you don’t end up sick.

Firstly, buy a meat thermometer to check the temperature and follow these tips for cooking your roast:

  1. Whole cuts of red meat such as beef, lamb, or kangaroo (that have not been stuffed, rolled, mechanically tenderised or flavour infused) will only have bacteria on the outside, so can be cooked to your taste. As a guide, well done is 77°C, medium is 71°C and medium rare 63°C. Leave to rest for three to five minutes after cooking and before consuming. Eating these cuts of meat very rare (under 63°°C) or raw may put you at risk of parasitic infection such as toxoplasmosis.
  2. Minced meat, hamburgers, sausages, livers (or other offal), corned beef and roasts that have stuffed, rolled, flavour infused or mechanically tenderised are higher risk. These should be cooked to 75°C in the centre.
  3. Poultry such as chicken, ducks, spatchcocks, capons, or turkey (including their livers) either whole or minced should be cooked to 75 °C in the centre or in the thickest part of the leg if a whole bird. Cook any stuffing separately as it will slow the cooking and the inside of the bird might not be fully cooked.
  4. Pork in whole cuts (such as steaks and pieces) should be cooked to 70°C and roasts to between 70°C and 75°°C and left to rest for three to five minutes.
  5. Veggie or vegan roasts are becoming popular so follow any cooking instructions on the packaging or if you make your own, cook to 75°C in the centre.
  6. If you prefer fish to roasts, cook it to around 63°C or when flesh flakes easily.

Raw meat and poultry juices are a food poisoning risk, so always use a separate chopping board for raw meat and another for uncooked veggies and salad and always wash your hands, chopping board, and utensils after handling raw meat or poultry.

Sources: Food Safety Information Council (Source 1), Food Safety Information Council (Source 2), The Daily Mail, The Conversation

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