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Best Before and Expiration Dates on Foods – What do they mean?

Starting date:
March 6, 2012
Posting date:
March 16, 2012
Type of communication:
Source of recall:
Health Canada
Food Safety
General Public
Identification number:

Everyone has seen a "best before" date or "expiry date" on foods, but do you really know what it means? Health Canada is advising Canadians of what they should know about this kind of label.

What is the "best before" date?

The best before date tells you about the freshness and shelf life of the unopened food you are buying. It must appear on almost all pre-packaged foods that will keep fresh for 90 days or less. Some foods show a best before date even if they are not required to do so. It is important to know that a best before date is only meant to indicate how long a food will retain its normal wholesomeness, flavour, and nutritional value when stored under normal conditions. Health Canada recommends that you not consume unopened food products that have passed their best before date. They may have lost some of their flavour or their texture may have changed. Do not rely on your sight, smell or taste to judge the safety of food. Use your judgement. When in doubt, throw it out.

If the product has been opened, does the "best before" date still stand?

The best before date only applies to unopened products stored under normal conditions. Once opened, the best before date is no longer valid. Handling or transporting food can also affect the shelf life of a food. For opened packages, manufacturers are required to provide storage instructions on the label when they differ from normal room temperature. Some examples are "refrigerate after opening" or "keep refrigerated," which are important to follow.

Advice on how long food can be safely refrigerated can be found on the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety's website.

Does the "best before" date still stand if you freeze foods?

Some foods can be frozen to keep beyond their best before date. If you freeze food, the best before date is no longer valid. The length of time you can freeze items depends on the type of food you are freezing and its ingredients. Advice on how long food can be frozen can be found on the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety's website. Consumers can also contact manufacturers for information about freezing and storing their products.

Where can I find the best before date?

Best before dates must be in both official languages, using the words "best before" and "meilleur avant" with a date in the year-month-day format. The month may be expressed as a numeral or by one of the bilingual abbreviations below. The year is optional, unless it is needed for clarity (i.e., if the shelf life extends into a new calendar year).

Best before
11 JA 22
Meilleur avant
January: JA
February: FE
March: MR
April: AL
May: MA
June: JN
July: JL
August: AU
September: SE
October: OC
November: NO
December: DE

What is an "expiration date" and how is it different?

Some foods – such as meal replacements, nutritional supplements, infant formulas and formulated liquid diets – must carry an expiration date. The expiration date is the date up to which the food maintains its microbiological and physical stability and the nutrient content declared on the label. Foods with an expiration date should not be consumed after the date on the label has passed. When an expiration date has passed, there is no doubt, throw it out.

More information about food date labels is available from:

Healthy Canadians – How to Read Food Date Labels and Packaging

Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education's Be Food Safe Canada Campaign

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Health Canada

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