Sun, 28 Sep 2003

More choices avaiable in the market but buyers must beware

Sudibyo M. Wiradji, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Good, healthy and delicious processed foods can easily now be found at nearby grocery stores or supermarkets. They generally come in different kinds of packages and containers that protect the food from invading microbes and make them safe and available all year round. This wasn't always true, of course.

Imported processed foods, for instance, are becoming increasingly popular with high-income groups but consumers should be cautious about their expiry dates.

Imported food like cheese, canned fish and beef, baby porridge and packaged milk have been on a long journey before reaching their customers.

They are generally stored at warehouses near ports for some time upon their arrival until the processing of their import documents is completed.

"For a number of reasons, certain processed foods have to be stored at a warehouse longer than normal and this will shorten the shelf-life of these products," said FG Winarno, a food expert and former president of the Codex Allimentarius Commission, which was formed in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) to develop food standards and guidelines.

The customers should, therefore, carefully check the expiry dates on the packaged or processed foods they want to buy, even if the items might be considered "newly arrived," he said.

Unsuitable warehousing facilities can also affect the quality of food, which mostly requires special treatment depending on the nature of the product concerned.

Dried, processed food products might not require special treatment but wet, processed food such as fish, meat and lobster should be kept cold so as not to spoil.

"Special attention should be paid to processed food made of milled flour because such material is vulnerable to insect attack," he said.

The physical state of packaged food should also be closely examined, because any damage in the packaging or container could also effect the quality of the product inside.

Even though eating processed food that is past its expiry date does not necessarily cause serious illness, consumers are advised not to consume those that have expired, in order to avoid putting their health at risk.

In addition to the expiry date, consumers are also advised to look carefully at product labels. For processed foods that require special preparation, the labels should include preparation procedures and details on product usage.

Imported processed foods may have a problem due to their expiry date but buying locally made foods can pose a greater health risk because many, especially those made by small companies, carry no expiry date at all.

Winarno believes that most processed foods produced by small companies have not even passed a laboratory test.

"For those cases, I think the government and private sector should jointly sponsor the establishment of a laboratory where processed foods can be examined before being allowed to enter the market for public consumption," he said.

Below are the frequently asked questions you need to know to ensure that the foods you buy are really healthy and safe. These tips are taken from

Q: What is the correct way to store unopened canned and bottled products?

A: Store unopened canned products and shelf-stable bottled products off the floor in a pantry or in a cool, clean and dry place. Avoid exposure to direct sunlight.

How long can I store an unopened food product?

Unopened canned products usually last up to two years, if the can remains intact. Food products other than canned products may contain a "best-if-used-by" date which can give you guidance on storage.

What is the difference between a "best-if-used-by" date and an "expiration" date on food products?

The "best-if-used-by" date is the date recommended for best flavor and quality of a product. It is not a purchase or safety date. A "sell by" or "expiration" or "use by" date tells a customer how long a store should display the product for sale. Purchase products before the "sell by" or "use by" date. A product can still be used after the "sell by" date if it is still safe, wholesome and of good quality. Do not use a product beyond the "use by" date.

How do I store canned food products once opened?

Once opened, leftover contents must be removed from the can and placed in a covered, nonmetallic container and refrigerated or frozen.

How long can I refrigerate canned products after opening?

Discard leftover canned products after three to four days of refrigeration. Products containing meat should be consumed within two days.

How long can the product stay out of the refrigerator after it has been opened?

Refrigerate immediately after opening if not intended for immediate consumption. If reheated, food should be placed in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking. This recommendation also applies to refrigerated and frozen products.

Can I freeze canned or bottled food products before opening?

Canned or processed bottled food products are stable at room temperature and therefore do not require freezing. In fact, freezing in their original container can be detrimental to the quality (flavor and texture) of the product.

Can I refrigerate canned or bottled food products before opening?

Canned foods have been processed to ensure shelf stability, so it is not necessary to refrigerate the product. Long term storage in the refrigerator is not recommended because condensation may collect on the can causing it to rust. However, prechilling unopened products such as canned fruits and juices is acceptable.

Can you freeze juice boxes? Yes, boxed juices can be frozen. In fact, frozen juice boxes can help to keep school lunches cold.

Should you rinse canned fruit or vegetables before eating?

No, there is no need to rinse or drain the liquid in the canned product unless a particular recipe calls for it.

How can I tell if a canned food product has expired?

Some, but not all canned food products contain "best-if-used- by" dates. Unless a canned product is leaking or swollen (bulging), storing for several years will not affect the safety of the product. -- JP