Ask LH: Why Do Some Foods Have No Marked Expiry Date?

Ask LH: Why Do Some Foods Have No Marked Expiry Date?

Hi Lifehacker, On a recent visit to the supermarket I noticed a tin of tuna I picked up did not have an expiry date. On further inspection, neither did any of the other tins either. Isn’t it mandatory to display the expiry date on food items in Australia? If not, how can you when it’s about to go off? Are you supposed to just guess? Thanks, Fishy

Tuna picture from Shutterstock

Dear Fishy,

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand permits two main types of expiry date: “best before” and “use by”.

Foods that may become unsafe to eat after a certain time period must include a “use by” date on the packaging. These products cannot be legally sold after this date for health and safety reasons. Example include eggs, raw meats and milk.

By contrast, food products that have a “best before” label are generally safe to eat after they expire, although they may begin to deteriorate in quality after the date stated. Foods that have a “best before” date can still be sold after this date, provided the food is fit for human consumption. Typically, these foods will be sold at a discounted price.

There’s also a third expiry type for baked goods such as bread: these may be labelled with a “baked on” or “baked for” date if its shelf life is less than seven days. (Although as we have seen, suppliers aren’t always 100 per cent honest in this regard.)

The food supplier is responsible for placing a “use by” or “best before” date on food. Note that neither expiry type should be taken as gospel: your milk probably won’t go off on the exact day indicated on the label, for example. You should think of it as more of a general guideline.

“Long life” food is where things start to get complicated. Because it’s difficult to accurately assess the lifespan of certain tinned goods, food suppliers do not have to label them with an expiry date. This includes tuna and other canned foods that have a shelf life of two years or more.

However, this doesn’t mean that these foods will never spoil. Rather, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand accepts that they are likely to be consumed well before this date due to their long shelf life.

Realistically, turnover in supermarkets is pretty high so those tuna tins aren’t likely to have been there for very long. To be on the safe side, choose products that clearly indicate when they were tinned so you can keep tabs on their age. You should also employ your senses when dealing with canned goods: if it looks and smells normal, it’s probably safe to eat!

You can read up on the various food safety and labeling rules at the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand website. Hope this helps!


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  • Great article thanks!!!!! always good to have food safety promoted!

    Here are a few extra tips to help.

    raw meats can also have a “best before” date not just use by
    you can also use “expiry” instead of use by or best before
    It is buyer beware on foods past their best before date, as in it doesn’t have to be discounted, so always check dates!
    the use by or expiry date of a product is what the manufacturer can guarantee food safety wise, it may however last longer – just hasn’t been tested. Like yoghurt or sour cream -we have all eaten it way past their use by dates haha

    edit: never buy dented or damaged canned food – make sure it is removed from sale – little nasty toxin can grow in the anaerobic conditions of a can – Botulism!
    Its cause the lining of the can breaks and the can starts to rust.
    That is also why you should always put food in a glass or plastic container if there is any left overs from a can.

  • When I worked stocking the shelves as a first job, we were taught about rotating the stock. No one actually does that after the first week.

  • in my experience larger quantities of milk will last a day or two over the expiry date but small quantities of milk may smell a couple of days before the expiry date.

  • This is NOT acceptable in my opinion, as a person who buys in bulk and stores large quantities when on special in my pantry, then I need to know when it was canned or it’s use by date…. it’s too late when I need the product and it’s of no use to eat. FACT. So consumer laws…. get your act together… This means labeling your products with either / or…..canned date in ENGLISH, not codes. I have recently had to throw away over a dozen cans of goods as BAD. – All because of inconsideration on the canneries.
    I also suspect that many are “discounted”. “on special” knowingly because they are “old stock”… Make them mark the canned date clearly…

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