Best before never

Ellie Topp, a home economist, says it’s best to throw out deli meats after a few days as those are products you need to watch, along with bread and cheese.


We’ve all seen those best before dates stamped across our favourite food products.

They’re stamped somewhere on your box of crackers or carton of milk letting you know the last date the product should be consumed. Recently, CBC Marketplace broke a scandal about Canadian grocery stores that sell old food by changing the best before date. This happens across the country. Employees from bakery and meat departments purposely change best before dates on products to extend the product’s shelf life.

This is not only unethical but potentially life-threatening. The best before scandal will lead to a mistrust of big box stores, which is going to impact the way people shop for food. When people start to lose faith in buying food from large stores, independent bakeries and butchers will start to see a rise in customers.

It’s well known that eating poultry and dairy products past their prime can have adverse health effects. However, there are certain things you should know before you buy your products, like the fact that the best before date is very different from the expiration date. According to some health agencies, the best before has nothing to do with food safety.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) mandates only five products on the market need to be marked with an expiration date. These products include baby formula, nutritional supplements, meal replacements, foods for low-energy diets, and formulated liquid diets.

No meat, poultry, or other regularly consumed products are on that list. That’s because they are marked with a best before date, rather than an expiration date. This means the date marked on the product indicates how long the product will maintain its full flavour and nutrition. But just because the CFIA says it’s safe to eat certain foods after the best before date, it doesn’t mean that you should.

Health Canada is one agency that does not recommend eating food past its best before date. According to Ellie Topp, a home economist, if the food changes colour or has a smell then you need to throw it out. Topp also says it’s best to throw out deli meats after a few days as those are products you need to watch, along with bread and cheese. This is due to mould. Taking this chance is akin to “playing roulette,” says Topp.

While people used to be okay with scraping mould off food then proceeding to eat it, this is something that should never be done. Mould is believed to contaminate food in microbial ways, which can seriously affect your health. Yet, some bakeries in chain stores across the country have their employees remove mouldy fruit from bakery cakes. Cakes are then repackaged with a new best before date, according to a CBC Marketplace investigation.

The same investigation says some meat departments were just as guilty. Meat that was starting to turn brown was dipped in blood then the product was repackaged. Marketplace says stores were also grinding old beef up with fresh meat then selling it at a higher price. If chicken was starting to smell, Marketplace found stores marinated it to mask the odour then repackaged for a higher price. Not only were the stores making more money, they were putting consumer health at risk.

Who will want to buy food from a store where higher-ups only care about themselves, and where selling product is more important than whether or not the food is good?

When CBC broke this story, grocery employees said they were being told to change best before dates. Marketplace interviewed Mohammad Saffari, who worked in a Loblaws’ bakery. He was told to change the best before dates on fresh and frozen bakery items like pastries, and cakes that were weeks past their expiration date. Saffari even recorded a conversation with his boss who said that every store did it because the managers want their bonuses. Further investigation turned up a lot of stores that tampered with food.

In researching this piece, one day manager from a local grocery chain, who asked not to be named for fear of job loss, said that her bosses told her to make sure the meat department changed dates. “My boss told me many times to have meat department employees change best before dates to save them from wasting product,” said the manager. She went on to say that she was told to make sure the employees would package older meat under fresher ones and then reseal it with a new date and higher price.

This is probably the most unethical thing a store can do to its customers, but can we blame the employees? Perry Papadopoulos, a former Metro bakery employee, doesn’t think we should. “Honestly in this generation, teenagers would have just stayed and did what they were told so they don’t get fired,” said Papadopoulos. “They don’t want their first job to look bad on them.” Papadopoulos was never forced to change best before dates and it “never crossed his mind” that his store could have done what places like Loblaws are doing now. “The only thing we did that would affect best before dates was put a reduce sticker on stuff that was expiring,” said Papadopoulos.

Grocery store shopper Salima Bhanwadia has “always been hesitant of buying bakery stuff with fresh fruit,” and this scandal brought to light her fears. “The one thing I never do is buy ground beef,” said Bhanwadia.

Stores that pull these kinds of stunts are forever tainted and will surely lose customers to specialty shops like Buckingham Meat Market, which prides itself on offering Durham region quality meat for 60 years. Buckingham Meat Market butcher, Wayne Kuzenko, feels that food quality, honesty and integrity go hand in hand. “Quality and service hands down is the biggest reason to come here…a little shop like ours doesn’t last unless we’re doing something right,” said Kuzenko.

Butchers have fresh deliveries daily. They store their products at the industry standard of -18 degrees Celsius, and adhere to a meticulous cleaning schedule that allows their products to stay fresh longer, according to the FDA.

The best before scandal has made shoppers like Bhanwadia uneasy, but there are ways to get around this problem. Find a local butcher or baker, and for good measure of hilarity find a candle stick maker. People like Bhanwadia, who have been put off by grocery stores, will, in her words, “most definitely” start going to a butcher.