A recent shopping trip, I found that many of the products with a shelf life of 90 days or less, were past their “best before” dates. The federal legislation governing perishable foods requires that any food with a shelf life of less than 90 days carry an expiry or best before date. However, once the foods have gone beyond the expiry date, the Consumer and Corporate Affairs department cannot force the retailer or the manufacturer to remove the food from the shelves.

I found cottage cheese dated best before a date two weeks previous, and sterilized milk and salad dressings whose expiry dates were in the previous month. When I brought each of these items to the attention of the store managers, I was assured that the foods would be taken out of circulation.

Some retailers and suppliers complain that shoppers always reach to the back of the shelf to get the most recent supply of foods, leaving the older packages in the store. However, while producers may be conservative and give us extra days in the allowance, cottage cheese on display in mid- January which is dated “best before” December is less than fresh by any measurement. It is good that the federal Government can insist through legislation on shelf-life dates; but strange that the same government cannot force a store to remove out-of-date foods from the shelf.

Bob Herrold, technical and operational affairs manager with the food division of the Retail Council of Canada, says that it is good housekeeping on the part of any retailer to check the stock on a frequent basis. “Foods that are no longer fresh should be removed from the shelves and most of our members – the large supermarkets – certainly try to follow this practice,” he said.

Asked what procedures he would recommend should consumers find out-of- date merchandise, Mr. Herrold said that the store should be contacted and if nothing is done then the supplier could be called. “In the event of a product that could be dangerous, the local medical officer of health may be called,” he said.

Mr. Herrold also suggested that the Retail Council of Canada could be given a call and that office would bring pressure on the store if it is a member.

Marty McGinnis, vice president of the Grocery Product Manufacturers of Canada, says that many of the larger companies that stock shelves in supermarkets police the stores. “Many times the suppliers will check the expiry dates and take the goods away with them,” he said.

Asked what the suppliers do with these foods, Mr. McGinnis said that it would depend on each commodity. Some foods which are still fit to eat and just barely over the expiry date might be given to a charity. Others would be destroyed. “We must remember, though, that most dates are conservative and most companies err on the side of safety when it comes to codes,” he said.

The expiry date on dairy and bakery products and meat is an important clue to top quality and nutrient value. On cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt, the dates are either stamped on the lid or on the bottom of the containers. Bagged milk and bread have a date on the tag closure. Cheese should have a date stamped on the package – although at times it is difficult to find.

Butter has a life of more than 90 days and since it may have been in storage for many months before reaching the store, it is important to try and find the date which is on the end flap of some wrappers. Many companies use a perforated number which denotes the day of the year – so 090 indicates the butter was packed on March 31.

When you buy packaged meat such as hamburger, steaks, roasts, chicken, pork chops – anything that has been store-packed – you will notice a date that is supposed to state when the meat was wrapped. However, on a recent Saturday I found meat which bore the date of the following Monday. I also saw meat taken from the counter on a Tuesday on which the Monday date was removed by a clerk. It was then relabelled with a Tuesday date. With this type of cheating it is difficult to know which date the meat was originally wrapped and put out on display.

The printed expiry dates on cheese, bacon, packaged cold meats and wieners are often difficult to find and very tiny to read. Salads often have the date embossed on the lid of the container and if a store clerk slaps a price sticker over the date, it is almost impossible to read the code.

Salad dressings such as mayonnaise, Thousand Island and French are usually fine for six months, but some companies do print an expiry date on the label around the neck of the bottle.

Beer is also classified as a food in Health and Welfare regulations. Breweries tells us that beer is best if it is used within 90 days of manufacturing; however, a best before date is not required on the product. After 90 days there can be some taste and character changes in the brew. So, if you want to determine the age of your beer, here are a few pointers.

Labatt’s places a notch on the label of its brands, and if you think of the label as a clock, January is at 1 o’clock, March is at 3 o’clock, June is 6 o’clock, September is 9 o’clock and December is 12 o’clock. On the case, there is a code using the alphabet as the months – A is January, numbers are the day of the month so B14 would be February 14. – the date the beer was packed.

Carling O’Keefe notches its labels in Quebec, but in Ontario the code date is on the inside of the label, so you need to use a flashlight or hold the bottle up to the light to determine the date. The month is a letter of the alphabet, the date a number, and other digits refer to the line, the shift, the plant location. There should also be a code on the box such as C17 for March 17.

Molson Breweries place a code on the inner side of the label which again must be read by holding the bottle up to the light, or by removing the label. Letters of the alphabet and a number for the day, as well as the line number are used. D12 would be April 12.

Most breweries do not indicate the year the beer was packed, but all claim they can identify any beer with respect to the year. So, if you have some which has been sitting around for a long time, find the code and the breweries should be able to decipher it for you.