The custard powder that stood the test of time
When David Watson found a tin of custard powder that "expired" more than 15 years ago at the back of his grocery cupboard, he was far from horrified; he saw the dusty tin as a wonderful opportunity to prove his point about best-before dates.
The chairman of FACS - South Africa’s Food Advisory Consumer Service - Watson has been trying for many years to get consumers to understand that shelf-stable food such as maize meal, packet and tinned soups, rice, non-dairy cooldrinks, flour, rice, biscuits and cereals - does not become "rotten", "spoilt" or "toxic" after their best-before dates.
"The best-before date speaks to quality, not food safety, yet people perceive it as a food safety issue," Watson says.
Food scientists around the world cite consumer misunderstanding of best-before dates as a major contributor to unnecessary food waste.
As chair of the SA Association for Food Science & Technology’s 2019 congress, now under way in Boksburg, Gauteng, Watson shared with delegates how he cooked custard with that Nestlé custard powder - best-before March 2004 - and then had it analysed in a laboratory.
And then he ate it.
"It tasted bland and it was a bit stodgy, but it was still edible, and more importantly, the lab analysis revealed that it was perfectly safe to eat."
The product has been discontinued by Nestlé.
It is not illegal to sell food past its best-before dates, and a growing number of retailers across the country are selling food which is close to or just past its best-before dates, at heavily discounted prices.
But use-by dates, usually found on perishable foods, are indeed about food safety, especially after the pack has been opened. So consumers should avoid consuming food beyond its use-by date.
Adding to the date mark confusion, retailers have introduced sell-by dates to help with their internal stock management.
A sell-by date on its own does not conform to food labelling regulations. With a few exceptions, such as honey, salt and vinegar, products must have either a best-before or use-by date.