One of the properties that is most taken into account when buying food is what is popularly known as “freshness”. What consumers really want is that the food they buy is not past its shelf life, i.e., that it maintains the properties that make it suitable and acceptable for consumption.
Food, it should be kept in mind, unavoidably deteriorates over time. In some cases, as in fish and fresh meats, this process is very fast, while in other cases it is very slow, such as in canned goods. The reason for the alterations may be physical, as when bread dries because it looses its moisture. In other cases it may be chemical, as when fruit and vegetables ripen and finally spoil. Finally, there are microbiological reasons, due to the action of microorganisms.
All of these reactions can be slowed down if the food is stored under certain conditions, such as canning or chilling. In short, the shelf life of food is influenced by how it is stored as well as by time.
But, who and what decides the shelf life of a product? The manufacturer is responsible for establishing the “best before” and “use by” dates for each of the products he manufactures and for labelling them appropriately.
The “use by” date is applied to highly perishable foods that may pose a health risk if microorganisms grow in them. These types of foods should not be consumed after their “use by” dates.
The “best before” date is used for foods that do not pose such an evident health risk. Alterations are usually not due to microbiologic reasons, for example hardening in pastries. In this case, it is recommended that the product not be consumed after the “best before” date.
In any case, you will avoid surprises if you pay attention to some simple tips, such as checking that neither of these dates have expired or are close to it before you buy, and following the storage instructions given on the label by the manufacturer.
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