know when to throw, get wise about expiration dates

Date Labelling on Pre-packaged Foods

A basic understanding of what terms are used can help you to better understand these labels.

Durable Life

"Durable life" means the anticipated amount of time that an unopened food product, when stored under appropriate conditions, will retain its ◦freshness,

  • taste,
  • nutritional value, or
  • any other qualities claimed by the manufacturer.

A "best-before" date, also known as a "durable life date", tells you when this durable life period ends.

This information is usually found on the label with the words "best before" and "meilleur avant."

"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.

Best before" Date

"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.

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 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.

"Use by" Date

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.

"Best before" dates on products with a shelf life greater than 90 days

Foods with an anticipated shelf life greater than 90 days are not required to be labelled with a "best before" date or storage information. If manufacturers and retailers choose to provide customers with this information, they must follow the required manner of declaration, as described below.

How a "best before" date is shown on a label

The "best before" date must be identified using the words "best before" and "meilleur avant" grouped together with the date, unless a clear explanation of the significance of the "best before" date appears elsewhere on the label.

The "best before" date may appear anywhere on the package.

If it is placed on the bottom, this has to be indicated elsewhere on the label.

The month must be in both official languages in Canada or indicated by using specified bilingual symbols.

The year is optional, unless it is needed for the sake of clarity (for example, if the shelf life extends into a new calendar year).

If included, the year must appear first, followed by the month, then the day. 

Eating food that has passed the "best before" date

You can buy and eat foods after the "best before" date has passed. 

However, when this date has passed, the food may lose some of its freshness and flavour, or its texture may have changed. Some of its nutritional value, such as vitamin C content, may also be lost.

Remember that "best before" dates are not indicators of food safety, neither before nor after the date. They apply to unopened products only. Once opened, the shelf life of a food may change.

Never use your nose, eyes or taste buds to judge the safety of food. You cannot tell if a food may cause foodborne illness by its look, smell or taste. And remember: "If in doubt, throw it out!"

Foods that are likely to spoil should be properly stored, and they should be eaten as quickly as possible. Harmful micro-organisms that lead to foodborne illness can grow in foods, even if they do not appear to be spoiled.