No one wants to eat spoiled food. Whether checking best before dates at the grocery store or tossing aside an expired item, consumers do their best to stay vigilant. In fact, discarding an item past its best before date is common practice, and seems like great advice to follow.
However, could a few little-known facts be leading to some unintended consequences? Keep reading to find out.
1. Best Before Dates and Expiry Dates Are Very Different
Did you know that best before dates and expiry dates mean different things? If not, you aren’t alone. Many Canadians make the same mistake. Part of what makes best before and expiry dates so confusing to consumers is that the terms sound very similar. For those without food quality training, it would certainly be easy to confuse the two and think they are interchangeable.
However, the terms actually mean very different things. Expiry dates refer to when a food is safe to eat. If something has passed its expiry date, then consumers are advised to throw it out, since the product might now lead to food poisoning. Best before dates, on the other hand, have to do with taste, texture, and quality. If a product is past its best before date, it just means that it won’t taste as good, even though it is still safe to eat.
2. Confusion Over Expiration Dates Leads to a Stunning Amount of Food Waste
While confusion surrounding best before and expiry dates might seem harmless enough, it has helped to exacerbate a pretty big problem in Canada and around the world. Globally, we waste approximately one third of all food produced. In developing countries, that waste is often caused by storage and supply chain issues. Here in Canada, however, food waste is most likely to happen at the retail or consumer level, as people throw away perfectly good food that they fear has gone bad.
When consumers confuse best before and expiry dates, this can lead to food waste, as they discard items that are still safe to eat. According to some estimates, that equals about 400 kilograms of wasted food per Canadian per year.
3. Small Details Can Have a Big Impact on a Product’s Shelf Life
Confusion over best by and expiry dates is part of the problem. However, some have also claimed that even expiry dates might be overly cautious. This is a big point of contention, as the stakes are high on both sides. Professionals who work in food safety, for example, know that a lenient expiration date could jeopardize the safety of consumers. On the other hand, if a product can be safe to eat for longer, then food waste might be reduced.
Complicating this discussion is the fact that storage conditions can have a significant impact on a product’s shelf life. For example, if a fridge is one degree warmer or colder, that could potentially lengthen or shorten a product’s shelf life by as much as a day. Because food safety professionals can’t be sure of the storage conditions in each and every home, they need to plan for many different conditions in order to make sure that expiry dates are accurate in all cases.
Food Safety Professionals Can Pave the Way for Change
Balancing safety with food waste is important, and few professionals are better placed to make a difference than those working in food safety. Those working in product research and development, for example, might be able to find better ways of preserving foods that help to extend their shelf life.
Even small changes, though, can still have a big impact. For example, some best before dates are not as clear or easy to understand as they could be. A best before date that simply reads “03/04” could be referring to the fourth of March or the third of April. By helping to clarify and standardize best before dates, companies could also help to reduce food waste.
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