Our study results have revealed that one of the major reasons people throw away food is due to date labels, but how much do these dates actually mean? We’ve all opened milk several days before the printed date only to find it smelly and curdled, but it also happens that food looks, smells and tastes fine days after its best before date has passed.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) explains that the “best before” date does not guarantee food safety, so why are we throwing food out based on this date, and what does it actually tell us? The best before date provides guidelines to the freshness and possible shelf-life of unopened foods. The best before date is also known as a “durable life date”. The durable life refers to the expected time period that a correctly stored, unopened product will maintain its freshness, taste, nutritional content, or other characteristics claimed by the manufacturer. Foods that store longer than 90 days are not required to have “best before” dates, although manufacturers may choose to apply one.
“Expiration dates” are required on foods that are used for specific nutritional values like meal replacements, nutritional supplements, and infant formula. After the expiry date, the nutritional content may have changed from what is printed on the label. The CFIA recommends discarding food that has passed the expiration date. Eating expired food is not recommended, but unless you are on a prescribed liquid diet you probably don’t have much food labelled with expiration dates.
So what about those “best before” dates? The CFIA says you can eat and buy foods past the “best before” date, although the food is not guaranteed to have exactly the same taste and texture or may have lost some nutritional value. As the CFIA says, “Remember that ‘best before’ dates are not indicators of food safety, neither before nor after the date.” Best before dates are not hard-and-fast guidelines, especially in the case of longer shelf-life items (like pasta). In short, best before dates tell you something about freshness, but not necessarily about safety. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in the U.S. voices fears that an over-reliance on date labeling could actually increase risks because they may lead consumers to pay less attention to storage or other food safety factors. In this case, date labels are not in the interest of either public health nor sustainable resource use.
Not all consumers are confused about labels. Many people recognize that food past its best before date may not pose a risk, but still have no desire to eat food that may have decreased in quality. Are best before dates really helpful to the consumer? Maybe without them we would waste even more, as we would be even more cautious. Some consumers feel that best before dates are a ploy to encourage people to replace old product. In any case, date labels do play a role in food waste, but how exactly they affect consumer choices is highly variable (as shown by WRAP research). This report and our own findings show that different people use different indicators of food quality and weigh them differently according to their own views and to the products in question.
Food waste activists and organizations like WRAP are put in a tricky place: on one hand, they value waste prevention, yet they cannot comfortably condone or promote eating “old” food. Date labels become frustrating due to the many myths and attitudes surrounding them, but also because of genuine health concerns about food safety. There are ways to prepare foods that can reduce and prevent food borne illness, and so perhaps the effort should be in re-educating consumers about freezing and cooking techniques. In the meantime, while the CFIA may not feel comfortable about it, I’m going to keep eating smoothies made with a friend’s rejected hemp powder that’s mare than a year past “due.”