Using the “sniff test” to work out if food is off risks serious illness, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has warned.
Whilst most people will refrain from eating out-of-date meat, smelling milk to see if it is ok to drink is habitual in British homes.
The former Prime Minister Theresa May once said she scraped the mould off her jam to cut down on food waste.
The FSA has found that 50 per cent of adults in the UK do not always check use-by dates, with 44 per cent viewing them as a “useful guide”.
Instead, more than three quarters of adults (77 per cent) decide whether food is safe to eat by smelling it, and a quarter of men (26 per cent) have sniffed cooked chicken past its use-by date and eaten it based on the smell.
The FSA has warned that Britons who actively ignore use-by-dates could risk being hospitalised if they continue to favour their senses over science.
But Ben Tish, the culinary director at The Stafford in London, said it was a “fine balance” with the FSA “being overly cautious”, adding: “At home, not at work, I’m a smell test all the way, particularly if it’s not high risk – throwing stuff in the bin if it’s 10 minutes out of date is wasteful and bad for the environment,” he said.
Mr Tish is not alone, with 76 per cent of people having knowingly eaten out-of-date food and 37 per cent admitting to cooking food for other people that is past its use-by date.
The regulator, which used Ipsos Mori to survey 2,132 adults in March, has suggested that consumers are mistaking the crucial use-by date, which assesses bacteria on a food item, with best before dates, which act as a quality indicator.
“The use-by-dates of foods have gone through a thorough investigation to establish the life of the product and to ensure it poses no human health risk,” said Simon Tasker, director and senior food technologist at FoodTech Consulting. “Best before dates however pose no human health risks so can be more flexible in their interpretations, with many people consuming products after their best before dates.”
Prof Robin May, the FSA chief scientific adviser, said: “These findings are worrying. They indicate that people are often confused about food dates, potentially putting themselves and others at risk of illness. A use-by date on food is there for a reason. It is about safety.
“It’s great that consumers are trying to minimise food waste, but there are lots of ways to do that without gambling with your health, such as planning your meals ahead of time, checking what you have in the fridge that’s close to its use-by date and freezing food right up until the use-by date.”
A spokeswoman for the FSA said: “There are around 2.4 million cases of food poisoning each year, and unfortunately around 180 people die each year. We know a lot of cases of food poisoning arise from food prepared in the home, which emphasises how important it is to check dates on labels and follow good food hygiene practices when cooking for you or your family.
“Although the likelihood of becoming unwell due to out of date food is relatively low, if you do get unwell it could be very serious and you could even be hospitalised.”
Food poisoning can be particularly dangerous if it is experienced by people in at-risk groups, such as elderly people, children, or those with an underlying health condition.