What’s lurking in your fridge and at the back of your kitchen cupboards? A tin of tuna you’ve had for, gulp, years, or an old block of cheese, plus other sundries well beyond their best before dates?
Your instinct is probably to throw them away and so add to the UK’s growing problem with food waste.
A recent report found that the nation’s biggest supermarkets throw away 190 million perfectly edible meals a year. The UN says that every year, a fifth of household food ends up in the rubbish.
Why? Often because the foods destined for the bin were approaching their ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ dates, which many of us take as a sign they are going off. But that’s not necessarily the case.
Sarah Rainey (pictured) sent her long-expired food to NationWide Laboratories, in Lancashire, to find out how edible food actually is past its best-before date
While ‘use by’ dates (found on meat, dairy and other fresh foods) are about safety, meaning food shouldn’t be eaten once this date has passed, ‘best before’ (found on tins and packets) signifies quality, meaning the food is usually fine to eat but may not be at its best.
So how edible is food past its best-before date? SARAH RAINEY rummaged in her cupboards for packets, tins and boxes with long-expired dates and sent them to leading microbiology centre NationWide Laboratories, in Lancashire, to find out…
A six-year old tin of Heinz chicken soup proved to be perfectly edible
Six years three months out of date
WHAT IS IT? An unopened tin of Heinz chicken soup from 2014. Though a little dusty, it looks in perfectly good condition.
APPEARANCE: The soup inside looks identical to the contents of a newly bought tin.
SMELL: Just as you’d expect; creamy, meaty and a bit garlicky.
BACTERIA COUNT: Zero. The lab found no trace of salmonella, listeria, yeast, mould or E. coli.
A box of six free-range eggs were deemed edible eight days past the use-by date
Eight days out of date
WHAT IS IT? A box of six medium free-range eggs from a corner shop.
Eggs are one of the few products to have a ‘best before’ date; they are generally considered safe to eat up to three weeks after that if kept in the fridge.
Any longer and you risk salmonella bacteria multiplying inside the shell.
APPEARANCE: Once cracked, the eggs look normal: the whites are clear and runny; the yolks intact.
SMELL: Rotten eggs have a very distinctive sulphurous odour; these don’t smell of anything.
BACTERIA COUNT: Low. The tests detect 20 ‘colony-forming units’ (CFU) of bacteria per gram, so they are just starting to go off but still safe to eat. No salmonella present.
Morrisons’ ‘The Best’ pesto was edible despite being two years out of date
Two years and four months out of date
WHAT IS IT? A 190g jar of Morrisons ‘The Best’ pesto, made with basil, pine nuts, pecorino cheese and extra virgin olive oil.
APPEARANCE: A little oily on top but otherwise normal in texture. Still a vibrant green.
SMELL: Having been unopened for so long, the smell of herbs and garlic is quite strong but it’s not unappetising or sour.
BACTERIA COUNT: Zero. The oil has preserved the contents perfectly.
An unopened load of Kingsmill white bread was less ‘squeezably soft’ but perfectly edible
Five days out of date
WHAT IS IT? A loaf of unopened white Kingsmill bread, sliced medium thick.
APPEARANCE: Condensation is starting to form inside the packet and the bread is a little less ‘squeezably soft’ than the slogan suggests.
But it’s far from stale and there is no evidence of mould.
SMELL: Unpleasantly sweet and yeasty. Once the bread has had a minute or two to ‘breathe’ it smells more edible.
BACTERIA COUNT: Zero. Despite the slight changes in appearance and smell, this bread is still good.
A month-old block of Red Leicester cheese was technically edible, but Sarah said she wouldn’t eat it due to the ‘old sock’ smell
One month out of date
WHAT IS IT? A block of Red Leicester, bought from a corner shop. It is more stable than milk or yoghurt and so has a ‘best before’ date. Only fresh cheeses such as ricotta are given ‘use by’ dates.
APPEARANCE: Bright orange and mould-free but starting to go a bit squidgy at the edges.
SMELL: Not great. It has that nasty ‘old sock’ odour of gone-off cheese.
BACTERIA COUNT: Extremely high. The tests detect 200,000 CFU per gram of cheese — but the scientists say this is no cause for concern.
As cheese is made by putting bacteria into pasteurised milk, there is no unacceptable bacteria count. What is detected could also be lactic acid-forming bacteria, which are a by-product of the ripening process but don’t count as a pathogen (‘bad bacteria’).
The tests find no salmonella, listeria, yeast, mould or E. coli.
EDIBLE? Technically, but due to the smell I wouldn’t personally eat it.
Napoli 79p wafer biscuits that were five months out of date had a medium bacteria count but were still edible
WATCH YOUR WAFER
Five months out of date
WHAT IS IT? A packet of 79p wafer biscuits, filled with a chocolate-flavoured cream.
APPEARANCE: Completely normal. Surprisingly, these are still crisp and the cream inside is gooey.
SMELL: Insipid. Very little smell.
BACTERIA COUNT: Medium. The tests uncover 100 CFU per gram, which is the third-highest of the lot.
It isn’t dangerous but it shows biscuits can go off, not just become stale, and shouldn’t be left unopened for months.
A three-year-old jar of Sainsbury’s sun-dried tomato paste was technically edible, but its smell and taste was past its best
PASTE ITS BEST
Three years, five months out of date
WHAT IS IT? Sainsbury’s sun-dried tomato paste, made from tomatoes, garlic, sugar, salt, herbs and sunflower oil. The instructions say to keep it unopened in a cool, dry place.
APPEARANCE: This is grainy in texture and starting to turn a dull brown colour. There is a layer of gloopy oil on top.
SMELL: Musty and sour, with a pungent, lingering aroma that doesn’t smell at all right.
BACTERIA COUNT: Zero. The testers don’t find anything unsafe.
EDIBLE? Technically yes; you wouldn’t get food poisoning. But it’s clearly past its best in terms of smell and taste.
Waitrose Essential sardine fillets in oil were perfectly edible one year and nine months past its used by date
YES WE CAN!
One year and nine months out of date
WHAT IS IT? Waitrose Essential sardine fillets in oil. Fresh fish and meat have ‘use by’ dates, but tinned alternatives are so well-sealed they have ‘best before’ dates.
APPEARANCE: Still in one piece and with some grey-blue colour.
SMELL: Fishy; not unpleasant.
BACTERIA COUNT: Zero. The tests find no bacteria or pathogens.
Lloyd Grossman sauce was edible despite being seven months passed the used-by date
Seven months out of date
WHAT IS IT? Loyd Grossman original Bolognese sauce, made with sun-ripened tomatoes, red wine, basil and oregano. The storage instructions say that the 350g jar should be kept in a cool, dry place.
APPEARANCE: The contents have separated a little but otherwise it’s normal.
SMELL: As appetising as the day it was bought.
BACTERIA COUNT: Low. The lab found 20 CFU per gram of sauce, which is well within the legal limits; and no trace of other harmful pathogens like e-coli.
HP sauce proved the test of time as it proved edible three years and five months out of date
BROWNED OFF? NO
Three years and five months out of date
WHAT IS IT? A large, dusty, unopened bottle of the nation’s second-favourite condiment.
APPEARANCE: Brown, squeezable, smooth.
SMELL: Vinegary, malty, slightly sweet and spicy.
BACTERIA COUNT: Zero. Sauces such as ketchup, brown sauce and mustard are well-preserved with plenty of sugar and salt, and sealed with foil under the plastic cap, so they take a long time to go off.
Nescafe Azera sachets were perfectly edible six years and five months out of date
Six years and five months out of date
WHAT IS IT? Six Nescafe Azera sachets of barista-style instant coffee. Powdered and designed to be mixed with boiling water, they are made from skimmed milk powder, coffee and sugar.
APPEARANCE: Each sachet is filled with brown powder that looks normal and clump-free.
SMELL: Very bland and sweet. Barely a whiff of coffee, so this would make a far-from-fragrant cup and be low on taste.
BACTERIA COUNT: Medium. Tests uncovered 120 CFU per gram, making it the second-highest of the lot. But this, the experts say, is still in the safe range and there was no trace of listeria, etc.
Waitrose Essential strawberry jam was stored in the fridge and edible six months passed its best-before date
Six months out of date
WHAT IS IT? Waitrose Essential strawberry jam. This has been stored in the fridge, which may have slowed its decline even further.
APPEARANCE: Fruity, red and jammy.
SMELL: Sweet. It’s not very fragrant but that isn’t down to decay. Keeping it chilled may just have dulled its appeal.
BACTERIA COUNT: Zero.
Lemon-infused rapeseed oil was stored for four years, but was only 18 days out of date
VERY OLD OIL
Four years, 18 days out of date
WHAT IS IT? An unopened bottle of gourmet lemon-infused rapeseed oil, bought from a farm shop six years ago.
Keep oil too long (or expose it to too much light or heat) and the fat molecules break down, making it rancid.
APPEARANCE: I don’t remember it being this orange and the oil is slightly cloudy, but there is no sign of rot or mould.
SMELL: Artificial; the freshness seems to have faded over time.
BACTERIA COUNT: Zero.
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