/ Food & Drink

Are you managing your food safely during the pandemic?

The pandemic has seen a resurgence of home cooking and baking, but are you making the most of your food in a safe way? Our guest from the FSA explains more.

This is a guest post by Peter Quigley. All views expressed are Peter’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

With our favourite pubs, cafes and restaurants currently closed, many of us are spending more time in the kitchen and trying to manage our food better in lockdown. 

To mark World Food Safety Day (7 June) the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has pulled together some of the most frequent questions it gets asked about the contents of your cupboards and fridges.

I hope this advice will help you to avoid throwing away good food unnecessarily.

The FSA’s top five home food facts

When eggs float are they bad?

Don’t use the egg float test to determine safety. Eggs are safe to eat for a couple of days after the best before date, as long as they are cooked thoroughly. 

Is food safe if the can has a dent in it?

If the dent on the can is shallow and there are no other obvious signs that the can is damaged (such as the can expanding or leaking) your food should remain fit to eat.

How long can you safely eat rice for after cooking?

Keep rice in the fridge for no more than one day. When you reheat rice, always check the dish is steaming hot all the way through.

Can you eat potatoes when they start to sprout?

Remove any sprouts on potatoes before using them and remember to cut off any green or rotten bits. 

Can you eat brown bananas?

Fruit or vegetables that are a bit overripe, such as wrinkly carrots, brown bananas and slightly mushy strawberries can be eaten normally (providing they are not mouldy). Alternatively, they can be used in cooking, baking or smoothies.

You can also take a look at our home food fact-checker here.

Know your dates

Do you know your dates? Understanding the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘use-by’ dates can help you to manage your food and avoid waste.

A use-by date is the most important date to remember. Foods can be eaten until the use-by date but not after. You will see use-by dates on food that goes off quickly, such as meat products or ready-to-eat salads.

You can freeze pre-packaged food right up to the use-by date. After the use-by date, don’t eat it, cook it or freeze it. The food could be unsafe to eat or drink, even if it has been stored correctly and looks and smells fine.

A lot of foods, including meat and milk, can be frozen before the use-by date though, so plan ahead.

Which items are you struggling to find?

The best before date, sometimes shown as BBE (best before end), is about quality and not safety. The food will be safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best.

Don’t trust the sniff test

The so-called ‘sniff test’ is not an appropriate method for testing whether food is safe to eat.

Food can look/smell fine even after the use-by date has passed, but the product will not necessarily be safe to eat. We can’t see/smell the bugs that can cause food poisoning.

We do however, encourage people to use common sense when it comes to the foods they wish to eat. 

For foods with a best before date people can use sensory cues to determine whether the food is appropriate to eat, be that looking for visible mould on bread, tasting to see if biscuits/crisps are stale, or smelling some dairy products (best before) to see if they have soured. 

But for foods with a use-by date, these should be used or discarded beyond that date, and smelling them to see if they are ‘off’ is not appropriate.

This was a guest post by Peter Quigley. All views expressed were Peter’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Do you feel you’ve been managing your food safely during the pandemic? Were you aware of the FSA’s five food facts? Let us know in the comments.

Comments

Thanks for this Conversation, Peter. With some people relying on infrequent deliveries and the temptation to keep food longer than usual, it’s a a good time to look at food safety.

There is a widespread assumption that reheating food will make it safe. This is risky, like relying in the sniff test. The example of the risk of reheating rice after more than a day in the fridge explains the problem.

With infrequent deliveries and a whole fortnight’s food arriving at the same time, our fridge is sometimes full to capacity. Also, use-by dates can sometimes be much earlier than the period the delivery has to cover, so discipline is certainly required to organise the contents to avoid waste and use the food in the optimal order to provide menu variety from day to day. Greater reliance is placed on the freezer compartment which is currently full to bursting.

It has taken some time, but I think our supermarket [Sainsbury’s] has just about got back to normal with product availability meaning there is less necessity to order excess food in order to compensate for anticipated shortages. We have more or less got the measure at last of what Sainsbury’s is struggling with and we now have a better idea of where to allow for substitutes.

Some non-food provisions have remained unavailable week after week so it was lucky that we had good stocks before the panic buying started to deplete the shelves.

Some foodstuffs are also still unavailable and I don’t understand why: for example, Sainsbury’s cannot supply Shredded Wheat, but M&S have ample stocks readily available, albeit in a giant 30-biscuit pack that doesn’t fit in any of our food cupboards! Somehow the bite-size version isn’t an acceptable substitute.

Em says:
8 June 2020

I certainly agree about the importance of the “use-by” date, but it is no guarantee of food safety.

You should still check all foods carefully for discolouration or off-smells, even if within the use-by date. This is especially true of raw meats and fish that may have been badly processed. I’ve had the odd “oven-ready” chicken from a premium supermarket chain that missed evisceration. As chickens are supposed to be washed and inspected following this step, I’m not sure what other health hazards would have been present, had I not undone the trussing to wash it myself (contrary to current advice!) and discover what lurked inside.

Whilst you may have put food straight in your refrigerator when it arrived, the food may have been incorrectly stored before purchase, the packaging may have been damaged or seals broken. It is particularly important to eat fresh foods bought from a deli counter, where cross-contamination and exposure to air-born pathogens are more difficult to control than with prepacked foods produced in a food factory, hence the much shorter use-by dates.

Conversely, bacteria do not maintain a calendar and suddenly start growing the minute the use-by date has passed. So, it is usually quite safe to eat something over the next day or two, provided you are confident about its origins, handling and storage. With limited home delivery slots and trips to the shops, we sometimes have to eat the food we have on hand and avoid waste.

As it says in the lead article, use your common sense.

Quote: Don’t trust the sniff test
The so-called ‘sniff test’ is not an appropriate method for testing whether food is safe to eat.

Really? As I hate waste, all food is dealt with by cooking / eating / freezing before use-by dates. Even so, I always smell food before cooking or eating. Many foods such as meat, eggs, milk, plant milks, can be off even though they are within date so I always smell them before use.

I agree with Em, use your common sense.

At one time it was recommended that fridges were maintained between 4 and 8°C. The current recommendation from the Food Standards Agency is to keep them at 5°C or below, which will reduce the rate of growth of bacteria, notably Listeria species. The colder the better but if it’s too cold some vegetables start to freeze.

One of the problems that many seem to have experienced with supermarket deliveries is short dates, which is not very helpful it it will be a week or two before the next delivery. From speaking to others it appears that the supermarkets will offer refunds if their produce is unsatisfactory. A friend whose wife is on the government list received a £20 refund from Sainsbury for not meeting their published minimum time before the date on the pack, but what he wanted was for this not to happen again because planning can be difficult.

I have been disappointed with the odd items from the three supermarkets I have used but have coped by keeping an eye on what has to be used first. I have also made an awful lot of vegetable soup with tired vegetables to avoid waste.

I’ve let food go a few days past the best before/use by dates that I wouldn’t have done this time last year as it avoids an extra trip to the shops.

I was looking at my Ocado receipt that has ‘Use-by’ dates.

I always take notice of use-by dates on meat and make sure it is cooked, eaten or frozen within date after being in the refrigerator of course and giving it the sniff test.

But what I have taken more notice of is the use-by dates on the receipt. Mushrooms 2 days, potatoes 3 days, white cabbage 3 days, a pot of growing mint 2 days, a fennel that already looked past its use-by date 5 days.

Just 3 days for potatoes and 2 days for mint growing in a pot. The fennel with the longest use-by date needed quite a lot trimming off before using the same day as purchase.

If customers follow these use-by dates, it must create an awful lot of waste. Having a fortnightly delivery, I have no trouble making potatoes and cabbage last that long (the cut part of the cabbage will need a shave), mushrooms usually last nearly a week, and with a few decades of experience, it is just a case of common sense, keeping an eye on them and making sure they are used before they go off.

I can understand use-by dates on prepared salad veg, but surely the dates on whole veg should be best-before dates not use-by dates?

I go along with all of that, Alfa. We use our brains as well as our noses to judge when food remains safe and palatable.

Our ancestors had to keep vegetables from the time of picking until late in the season before new crops were ready; cool storage was their method and we do the same. Things might not be tip-top in the peak of perfection after sitting in our garage for weeks on end, but they are certainly safe – as you say, perhaps with a bit of nifty knifework.

Perhaps Ocado are being hyper-sensitive to limit any claims against them. Certain produce can deteriorate in appearance if stored too long but that does not necessarily impair their flavour or immediately affect their safety.

I would go so far as to say that a lot of fresh produce is not even ready to eat by the time the use-by date comes round. I should like to see a definition of “ripe and ready to eat” as applied to plums and peaches [possibly sponsored by the dental profession].

I agree about the need to reduce waste. ‘Best before’ dates are being phased out on some produce to reduce food waste. Some fruit would not be sufficiently ripe if it had to be eaten by the date shown. I have had ‘perfectly ripe’ fruit that was ready to eat a week after purchase.

Dates encourage shoppers to select produce with the longest date, resulting in a considerable amount of food being sold off at reduced price on the marked date, passed on to charities or simply disposed of.

In times of supply shortages I have some sympathy with supermarkets providing food with shorter dates than normal. I have been buying brown mushrooms after receiving two packs of very tired white mushrooms. Brown ones keep better. I normally avoid prepared salad because I would not be able to use it all while it was in a fit state. After receiving a bottle of milk with a short date I froze half of it immediately and ordered some long-life milk. After that, all the milk I have been given has been fine. With a few exceptions I have been happy with what I have received from Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose.

As the Food Standards Agency has been pointing out for years, the ‘sniff test’ is not safe because some bacteria produce heat-stable toxins that are not destroyed by cooking, which is why I pay attention to ‘Use by’ dates on meat and dairy products, and also use the sniff test.

Our ancestors invented pickles, jams, salt curing, smoking, drying and other ingenious ways to preserve seasonal food for later use. This also enabled long sea voyages.

We are fortunate these days to have access to fresh food most of the year, and I include frozen food. What we must somehow find a way to deal with is food waste.

We need to use what we buy when it is fit to eat, and that requires planning. Maybe the new austerity, when we must watch the pennies, will help us learn the skills my Mum had, when feeding us in the aftermath of WW2.

We – and the shops – must also stop the obsession with perfectly uniform fruit and veg. By all means charge a premium for perfect carrots but we must use all we grow, and use any waste sensibly. I saw a documentary recently about a parsnip farmer who was so messed about with last minute order cancellations from a supermarket, and had to reject so many less than perfect but perfectly eatable specimens, that he decided to give it all up after working for nothing. Crazy, but we consumers must share the responsibility.

I am happy to buy carrots that are less than perfect – just like the ones my father grew.

I will not buy ready to eat fruit that has to be cocooned in plastic to allow it to survive transport and display.

John S. says:
1 July 2020

I fully support the ‘common sense’ approach to food safety, and would never throw food away only because it has passed its Use By date.
Milk is an interesting example. We used to own a fridge that refused to go below about 8º. From time to time, milk would go off within a few days of opening and before its Use By date. We now have a fridge that keeps to about 5º. Not only does our milk never go off under ‘normal’ usage, but on a couple of occasions we have gone on holiday for a week leaving a half finished bottle of (skimmed) milk in the fridge. It has been fine on our return; lasting the few days to the end of the bottle regardless of the fact that it is at least a week past its use by date!
Of course this is a low-risk food. Make a mistake with your sniff test and you will have to throw out your hot drink, or your cereal. It is very unlikely to make a healthy adult unwell!