At one time it was simple: you looked at food, felt it, smelled it. Your senses told you if it was not good for eating and needed throwing. Yes, there were instances of food poisoning from invisible bacteria, all of which are bad, though arguably the fact that we ingested more of these bacteria in small doses meant we built up more immunity and were therefore less likely to suffer major illnesses.
These days everything is wrapped to within an inch of its life and stamped with arbitrary dates which even our government agrees add to the confusion about what is fresh to eat and what is not, and results in the unnecessary waste of huge volumes of food. The worst instances of poor hygiene may have been eradicated by legislation and inspections conducted by the Food Standards Agency, but consumers don’t stand a chance in the face of a welter of confusing information. Consider this, courtesy of Wikipedia:
“Foodstuffs in the UK have one of two labels to indicate the nature of the deterioration of the product and any subsequent health issues. EHO Food Hygiene certification is required to prepare and distribute food. While there is no specified expiry date of such a qualification the changes in legislation it is suggested to update every five years.
“Best before indicates a future date beyond which the food product may lose quality in terms of taste or texture amongst others, but does not imply any serious health problems if food is consumed beyond this date (within reasonable limits).
“Use by indicates a legal date beyond which it is not permissible to sell a food product (usually one that deteriorates fairly rapidly after production) due to the potential serious nature of consumption of pathogens. Leeway is sometimes provided by producers in stating display until dates so that products are not at their limit of safe consumption on the actual date stated (this latter is voluntary and not subject to regulatory control). This allows for the variability in production, storage and display methods.”
So in short, anything on the reduced rack at your supermarket may, but probably won’t be an increased risk. Sainsburys is changing labelling to say items can be frozen on any date up to the sell by date, rather than just on the day of purchase.
In my experience, dates mean nothing. I’ve bought things within date that have been inedible, but many more items that stored in the fridge for some days beyond date without any issue. I trust my senses, but I don’t trust the dates printed, though my daughter, having done a GCSE in Food Technology, won’t touch food after the printed dates. I find that a very sad state of affairs, all the more so because some products will ripen and mature to be at their best some while after the supermarket claims they are dangerous for consumption.
In some ways, this problem has only arisen because we have lost the skills of yesteryear for preserving food. For example, one irony is that most food you see in supermarkets labelled as “smoked” is actually chemically treated or coated with artificial flavourings to give a smoky flavour, rather than being smoked as a way to preserve meat or fish caught in times of warm weather to be consumed during the long, hard winter. Time was many ways of preserving were used for these purposes. How many people still make jam with summer fruits, chutneys and pickles or bottled fruit as my mum did for donkeys years?
A lovely present given to me a couple of years back says it all. The title is Preserved, and it discusses in some detail the whole business of drying, salting, smoking, making sausages and salamis, picking, creating pastes and purees, infused oils and vinegars, fermenting, sugar preservation, alcohol infusions, bottling and canning, air exclusion and freezing. Teaching you to suck eggs, you might think, but actually so many of the small-scale home batch production techniques for preserving fresh ingredients have gone by the board in the era of supermarket convenience that every keen cook will find something to learn and enjoy here.
So here is a tip: forget your supermarket; go to places selling top class ingredients in season (eg. look here and here, though you may well know of places selling pick your own fruit, or a small butchers shop that takes pride in its products, for example); find ways to keep the best through your own efforts, and enjoy for months to come afterwards. The techniques can be discovered by buying books or simply googling. It’s not hard, and, done properly, the food keeps way longer than your supermarket mass manufactured products, and tastes far better!