Best Before When?

The last two weeks, English writer Jonathan Maitland selflessly sacrificed life and limb, or at least his stomach, to test “best before” dates. What began with eggs one day past their “use-by” date, ended with a bowl of Sultana Bran (Raisin Bran) 12 weeks beyond the manufacturers’ cut-off by finsprings (via Flickr)

The “Best Before Challenge” and the accompanying writeup was equally entertaining and eye-opening. Most daring, I’d say, was eating steak mince seven days past the “use-by” date. Maitland’s wife cooked the meat for 45 minutes, and it was fine. Hence, Microbiologist Lee Humpheson, who runs a food-testing laboratory, wrote:

‘There is a 100 per cent greater risk from food that hasn’t been cooked or prepared properly, even if it is really fresh, than from food which is past its Use-By date, but which has been cooked and prepared properly.’

Maitland eating old meat reminded me that pepper sauce used to serve a purpose–to mask the taste of old meat. It also brought to mind what a chef once told me–ordering a well-done steak in a restaurant gives the kitchen an opportunity to use up its older meat.

The article featured some intriguing expert advice. David Jukes, a senior lecturer in Food Bioscience at Reading University opined:

Inevitably, the food industry plays safe. Use-By dates have a degree of safety built in, in order to protect the industry.

Furthermore, Martin Caraher, a food policy expert at City University in London, added that cautious use-by dates are in the food industry’s best interests:

‘The supermarkets’ main concern is the health of their customers, but strict Use-By dates are also in their financial interests. If customers throw food away, they have to replace it by buying even more.

The whole “Best Before” experiment seems like a TV show waiting to happen. Execs could create an offshoot of “Fear Factor” or make it a reality show by filming life at my house. What would a kitchen reality show look like at your home?

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  1. Posted June 9, 2008 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Good work! Bringing this topic to national attention is extremely important.

    In Haiti, the majority of the urban adult population only consumes a full meal every other day. The children do eat a meal every day. People chew on clay during days they do not eat. The women get by eating any spoiled fruit and vegetables they are unable to sell for a pittance.

    This is a fact, I lived there for two years and witnessed the situation myself. I am in-touch with aid workers in Haiti now and the situation has gotten worse.

    You cannot imagine starvation at these levels. A worker that cannot find any day labor for a week typically loses one child to starvation. Families must make weekly decisions as to who lives (a family member that can work) and who dies (a family member that suffers from an illness curable in the U.S.).

    Compassion is lost in these situations. Life becomes a daily struggle for survival. Hungry people are like hungry wild animals sometimes, fighting over scraps thrown on a waste pile. Humanity is reduced to basic animal survival instincts.

    Near the clinic where I worked a 5-year old child took care of her infant brother Monday through Friday. This child could start a fire, prepare US AID rations and collect water from the well behind the clinic. The mother could only return to the cracker-tin shack on weekends. Her job was prostitution.

    The daily scenes of starvation, illness and death are too disgusting to relate here. Picture Europe during the times of the Black Plague perhaps.

    There are also millionaires on Haiti, living in the heights about in places like Petionville and Kenscoff. For the most part they are mostly concerned with guarding their wealth. Some do help the less fortunate yet very little food trickles down to the masses living exactly as I described at the beginning of this post.

    Thank you for your efforts.

  2. Emily
    Posted June 9, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Wow – TH Williams, do you have suggestions for what we can do to help people in Haiti? Do you know of a trust-worthy organization that we can support and count on to translate that support to the right people?

    Jon – great post! Do you know of a history of sell-by dates? When companies first starting putting them on products, were they greeted as helpful or was it seen as a joke?

    In my house, the “scariest” things in the fridge are the condiments – like mint jelly from a few holidays ago that nobody liked the first time we served it… I know it’s in there somewhere, but I wish it would just disappear.

  3. Posted June 9, 2008 at 3:29 pm | Permalink


    If click on my name above, you will see a new blog entry, inspired by WastedFood of course! I have put links to several groups that I know for certain are directly helping Haitians, with low overhead or administration costs. However, following up on food waste issues in local communities around the world does make a difference to global food supplies and distribution.

    Recent huge price increases in foodstuffs and fuel are a huge issue to people in places like Haiti. While I was there I introduced soybean cultivation and taught them how to press the beans for oil. My uncle provided me with 50 lb sacks of a variety of soybean that would grow in any soil. I broke these sacks into smaller sacks and went all over the island teaching people. I would even stay with them and make sure the beans were planted and not immediately eaten. Soybeans are now the #1 cash crop in Haiti!

    Learn about the issue and start writing representatives in Washington, DC and State governments about food waste, problems in the U.S. Farm subsidies laws, and government efforts to alleviate starvation also will make a difference.

    If you are employed at a large corporation of any kind, ask what they are doing in terms of Public Service programs to eliminate hunger. For people that work at food producers and processors there are many interesting in-house efforts going on. Other corporations are aware of the food problems and taking specific actions as well.

    Our government does follow-up and act on citizen’s concerns, especially when many people raise the same issue often enough!

  4. Hyuna
    Posted June 9, 2008 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    This is really interesting and eye opening for me. I’m working at a nutrition department and have been always concerned about expiration dates. Even when I learned that properly prepped food can last up to 7 days as long as it can be stored properly (

  5. Jonathan
    Posted June 9, 2008 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Regardless of what you think about Mr. Maitland, it’s food for thought. That maybe those “best before” and “use by” dates aren’t the gospel truth.

  6. nicole
    Posted June 11, 2008 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t worry too much about jams/jellies. The sugar content prevents most bacteria. The only jam I ever had turn me just fermented and created a wine taste.

    My mother taught me how to preserve all kinds of food. That way I can hit all the deals. And if you do see some bruised food at the market, just speak to the manager. You’ll get a discount just for taking it off their hands. My grandpa used to come home with 50 pounds of produce at a time. No harm in asking.

  7. Posted June 18, 2008 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    I think this would be a great topic for the new network “planet green” I have been watching on cable.

    Also I routinely eat eggs past their due dates, when it starts to be more than a week overdue I just hard boil them and make egg salad.

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