The debate over ‘best before’ dates: strict rule or just a suggestion?

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  • People often throw out food unnecessarily as they believe that 'best before' dates indicate food safety.
  • However, this isn't the case - it really is the expiry date we should consider carefully. 
  • Food wastage is a global worry, including in SA, where more than 10 million tons are wasted each year.

Many people throw out kilograms of food each month because they’re under the impression that the “best before” date on the product indicates it’s no longer safe to eat.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP's) Food Waste Index Report 2021, a shocking one-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted.

A recent survey by Dalhousie University in Canada revealed that the majority of Canadians are still largely following the label and are opposed to eliminating best before dates on food products - even if it means it will help reduce food waste. The survey shows that 65% of respondents would throw out unopened food past its best before date, even as prices rise.  

READ MORE | Tips to ensure you don’t waste food in 2022

“As long as it doesn’t smell bad or whatever, I’m okay,” one man told CBC News while shopping at a farmer’s market where products don’t come with a best before date.

Another shopper said: “You can use milk a few days after the best before date ... and it’s not tragic." Yet research suggests that many people believe otherwise.

When substantial amounts of food are produced but not eaten, it has negative environmental, social and economic impacts that cannot be ignored, explains the UN. Estimates show that about 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with wasted food.

The case is no different for South Africa, says Saijal Sucheran. The engineer and researcher previously noted that approximately 31 million tons of food is created annually, with about a third (10.2 million tons) going to waste.

“People are obsessed, hooked, [and] addicted to best before dates,” Sylvain Charlebois, Director of Agri-Food Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University, told CBC News.

READ MORE | FEEL GOOD | These compassionate chefs turned 'waste food' into 1.3 million meals for the hungry

Charlebois, who worked on the survey, says we should abide by expiry dates, but best before dates are more of a guideline to preserve the product’s quality.

“If the product has a best before date and it’s past that date, it doesn’t mean it’s bad,” he says.

What are your thoughts about consuming food products past its 'best before' date? Let us know here

Retailers removing labels

In the UK, several retailers plan to remove best before dates on certain food products to avoid foods fit for consumption going unsold.

In July this year, Forbes reported that Marks & Spencer removed best before dates from a range of their fresh produce. Their decision is part of their ‘Plan A’ sustainability commitment, wherein the retailer has pledged to halve food waste by 2030.

READ MORE | Food worth R61bn is wasted every year in SA

Some of the most commonly wasted produce include apples, potatoes and broccoli. These, along with more than 300 other fruits and vegetables, have had their best-before labels removed by the retailer. Forbes explains that dates are now replaced with a code that the retailer’s staff members use as an indicator to ensure the items are removed from sale as required.

Research published by Harvard Law School and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in 2013 found that the dates printed on packaged foods only ended up confusing consumers and led to unnecessary food wastage as the food wasn’t bad to eat at all.

“Expiration dates are in need of some serious myth-busting because they’re leading us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food, along with all of the resources that went into growing it,” said Dana Gunders, NRDC staff scientist. She added:

Phrases like ‘sell-by’, ’use-by’, and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and leading to a false confidence in food safety. It is time for a well-intended but wildly ineffective food date labelling system to get a makeover.

Gunders and her co-authors explained that sell-by dates were only intended for retailers to help them with stock control. In other words, they suggest to the retailer when they should no longer sell foods in order to ensure they still have a good shelf life after consumers buy them.

According to one study, about 80kg of food per person a year is wasted in Canada - that’s about 35 averaged-sized watermelons, says Cameron MacIntosh, reporter at CBC News.

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