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Exposing the Rotten Truth

08.mar.06, Marnie Webb, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Confusion surrounding the difference between food quality and food safety is prevalent.

08.mar.06, Marnie Webb, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
I spent last Saturday with my sister, hitting the bridal shops for her upcoming marriage. Arriving at her condo for breakfast, she took some yogurt out of the refrigerator. Looking at it she tossed it in the garbage. Apparently Saturday was the best-before date on the container. She wasn't going to eat it. I didn't say much but at lunch she ordered her hamburger medium. What does medium mean? Did someone in the back check it with a meat thermometer? She got an earful about food safety.
Confusion surrounding the difference between food quality and food safety is prevalent. Last night I watched a TV news piece on the importance of best-before dates at the grocery store. Apparently one rotten egg, curdled cream or spoiled seafood can each send you to the doctor. My appetite was ruined but it wasn’t because of the foods sitting on store shelves past the best-before date. The implication of the story was that you can become ill from consuming these foods. The message is misleading, causes confusion and detracts from information on reducing the risk of serious foodborne illness. Food quality is different from food safety. Food quality relates to taste, smell, appearance and nutrition, whereas food safety is about whether or not it will make you sick. Frozen whipped topping five months past the best-before date may not be as harmful as eating raw or undercooked meat or perishable food left at room temperature all day.
I work at an information centre at the Food Safety Network. Our national toll free line is one way we engage the public in discussing food safety issues. We frequently receive questions on food storage and best-before dates. Should I toss an unopened package of food with a best-before date of yesterday? An opened package of food smells bad but the best-before date is still two weeks away. Why? I’m happy to discuss these issues with people that call our toll-free line. I’m happy to discuss food safety with anyone who will listen – just ask my family. They are all fully aware that the best-before date no longer applies once the package is opened.
Any prepackaged food with a durable life of 90 days or less must have a durable life date on the label and instructions for proper storage. Durable life is the amount of time, starting on the day a food is packaged, that the unopened food will retain its normal wholesomeness, palatability and nutritional value, when stored under appropriate conditions. The durable life date is expressed on food labels as the " best-before" date. Dating information indicates quality not food safety.
There is a difference between spoilage bacteria and pathogenic bacteria. Spoilage bacteria cause food to deteriorate and develop unappetizing odours, tastes or textures. Mushy vegetables, slimy meats and sour milk are a result of spoilage bacteria. Most people will not become ill from consuming spoiled food. Pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter and Listeria monocytogenes cause illness. These bacteria generally do not affect the taste, smell, or appearance of food. Food left at unsafe temperature could be dangerous to eat, but smell and look fine.
It’s frustrating to watch a news report that contributes to the confusion. To be fair, two good points were made at the very end of the piece: not all foods are bad once they reach the best-before date and read the label for the best-before date before purchasing food. I hope my sister was watching.
Marnie Webb is a home economist and a member of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. For more information on best-before dates and other food safety issues call the information centre at 1-866-503-7638 or