A new report on competition in the food retailing sector has triggered a new flood of expert statements and media coverage of best-before dates. It seems that Canadian consumers still aren’t clear on their meaning…
I’ve covered the situation here in the FFB more than once. And it has been trumpeted extensively in the mainstream media as well. But the message has still apparently failed to penetrate the minds of the masses: ‘Best Before’ dates on foods are NOT the same as ‘Expiry’ dates.
What’s the difference?
Expiry dates indicate when foods may no longer be safe to consume. That is, their shelf life has ended.
Best Before dates merely indicate when foods may be past their peak of freshness.
Virtually all foods in all developed Western countries carry Best Before dates. Relatively few carry actual Expiry dates.
The message is: Foods will remain safe to eat after their Best Before dates. If, that is, they’ve been stored and handled properly since you brought them home.
Who determines them?
Kate Parizeau, a professor at the University of Guelph who studies food waste, says, “A lot of people think that best-before dates are expiry dates, when there are actually very few products in Canada that have a proper expiry date.” Those products contain specific nutritional ingredients that could degrade over time, such as baby formula.
“I think many people have this idea that before dates are determined by scientists in a lab measuring how many days until a product goes bad,” Parizeau explains. “That’s not how it works. It’s something that the government tells manufacturers that they themselves have to figure out in-house, so it’s a bit of a black box.”
So, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to do away with Best Before dates, after all.
The current conundrum
The new report on fighting food price inflation recommends that Best Before dates be eliminated from the Canadian food labelling system.
“Best-before dates are widely misunderstood. They are not expiry dates. They refer to a product’s peak freshness,” the CEO of Second Harvest Canada is quoted as stating in the committee report. “Eliminating best-before dates would prevent safe, consumable food from being thrown out and save Canadians money on their grocery bills.”
If they’re not being used properly, Best Before dates may, in fact, be a major contributor to food waste. And that’s costing Canadians up to a third of their food dollars every year. It’s a matter of food we buy with good intentions to use, but throw out ‘when it gets old’ – ‘just to be safe’.
Consumer education needed
Consumers need to be better informed about the real meaning of Best Before dates – unless they’re eliminated, as proposed. And more importantly, they need to change their habits and buy only what they need.
‘Two-for’ deals and their many cousins routinely tempt shoppers to buy more than they need of ‘featured products’. The surplus often gets tossed. This is particularly true of fresh produce.
Shoppers should also be encouraged to plan meals a week ahead, and make shopping lists that fulfill the requirements of the planned meals, and don’t include frills.
In addition, shoppers should be encouraged to visit the supermarket less frequently. Once a week should be sufficient for the vast majority of families. The more often you ‘go shopping’, the more likely you are to buy something unnecessary, or make impulse purchases. All of which inflate your grocery bill.
A useful resource
Foodsafety.gov is home to an extremely detailed guide to how long foods will remain safe to eat ‘after date of purchase’. If you’re not sure about a food, just look it up.
Plan sensibly. Shop wisely. Eat well. And avoid food waste you might otherwise commit if you stick too religiously to ‘Best Before’ dates!
~ Maggie J.