Food Safety 101 - when to chuck it!

Okay well firstly let’s hope you don’t actually just ‘‘chuck’’ any food items and instead you dispose of them sustainably (sorry had to throw that in as I’m making an effort to be more sustainable in July if you want to follow along on instagram)!

Food safety is a funny one because I find some people are anal with sticking to use by and best before dates and some people prefer to take more of a risk and let things go until they pour milk into their smoothie and realise lumps probably aren’t a good thing! I'll confess, I'm known to rarely check the date on products in my fridge. Meat and fish I always will, but yoghurt, kefir and nut milks I just judge by smell and look and for cheese I'll just cut off the mouldy bit and keep using (surely I’m not the only one who does this?). So I’ve sought the advice of Chef Cate Robertson to get the low down on food safety and to tell me if I can keep cutting off bits of cheese and saving the rest of the block! Here’s what I found out…

As a general rule Best Before dates are guidelines of when food will start to deteriorate in quality. Use By dates are an indication of when food will spoil and should not be consumed past these dates.

Dairy products in Australia display Best Before dates. Here are some guidelines related to spoilage:

MILK – can usually still be used a least a few days, and with light milk up to a week, past its best before date. To check for spoilage open the milk and let the air out before smelling it (the trapped air will smell stale), if the milk then smells putrid or sour, or is thick or lumpy in appearance it’s best not to use it.

If milk is close to its use by date and you think you may not use it, it can be popped in the freezer and defrosted later for use in baking, making pasta sauces or even fresh ricotta. It will separate and be a bit lumpy but its fine to consume.

YOGHURT & KEFIR – as it is already full of (beneficial) bacteria yoghurt and kefir can often go up to a week or longer, if unopened, past the best before date. Watch out for any coloured mould or an off smell, its best not to consume it if this is the case. Cream or sour cream can usually follow this same guideline.

CHEESE – harder cheeses such as Tasty, Cheddar and Parmesan, and soft cheeses such as Brie and Chevre (goats cheese), show their first signs of spoilage with unwanted mould. As we know some cheese comes covered or spotted with mould already, keep an eye out for mould that is a different colour or smells really funky. Cate says that I can in fact cut off the mouldy bit but it’s best to use the remaining cheese over the next week. 

Fresh cheeses such a Ricotta, Cottage Cheese and Buffalo Mozzarella will spoil more easily so use the same guidelines as yoghurt and don’t use it if it becomes mouldy, slimy or smells off in any way.

MEAT & FISH - in Australia displays Use By dates.

When buying fresh meat and fish you need to adhere strictly to the Use By dates. If you think you may not use an item before the date then freeze it in an airtight container as early as possible, the fresher an item is the better it will freeze and defrost. The best way to defrost an item is in the fridge overnight or for some larger items, such a whole fish or chicken, 2 nights. Its best to use items as soon as they defrost.

When buying from the butcher or fresh fish shop make sure the items are as fresh as possible. Fish will last around 2 days in the fridge and meat up to 3 days. If you are unsure ask you butcher.

Many other items in your fridge and pantry will come with either Best Before or Use By dates. It is especially important to follow Use By dates correctly as there is a risk of food poisoning. For items that have Best Before dates, proper storage will preserve their shelf life and importantly - their nutritional value!

So in summary dairy can go past it’s best before date but judge by smell and look (if in doubt chuck it out - sustainably of course!) and for fish and meat it’s best to adhere to the use by date because there is a greater risk of food poising.

A few other questions I asked Cate were:

  • Can you freeze and then re-freeze? Raw meat and fish that is defrosted should always be cooked before refreezing. Fruit and vegetables, such as berries and peas, that have been defrosted can be refrozen without cooking but their quality may be affected and they tend to refreeze in one big clump so its best to avoid this.

  • Can you re-heat foods more than once? Continually reheating and cooling items can affect the quality and does increase the risk of bacteria growth so it is not suggested. As a general rule food items should only be reheated once after the original cooking time (these are best cooked until they are hot, not just warm). You could make exceptions to that rule with dishes such as veggie soup or dahl, when you make sure the food is cooled quickly and stored correctly after each process of cooking and/or heating and I would avoid this with meat, fish and rice items. In general its best not to get into this habit unless you are confident in your food safety practices. 

Storing your food correctly will help to preserve it’s quality and reduce spoilage so see my recent articles Pantry or Fridge? and Make Friends With Your Freezer for the best ways to store common food items!