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Is it time to rethink food ‘best-before’ dates?

DO YOU throw away food as soon as it has reached its best-before date? If so, you’re probably wasting a lot of perfectly edible food.

In fact, collectively, consumers’ rigid compliance to conservative “expiry dates” is partly to blame for the fact that about a third of the world’s food ends up being wasted.

At a food labelling seminar hosted by the Department of Trade and Industry and the National Consumer Commission in Pretoria recently, Consumer Goods and Services ombudsman Neville Melville suggested that since millions of South Africans were food insecure, there was perhaps merit in selling certain non-perishable food products beyond their best-before dates at discounted prices.

Several delegates took exception to his comments, arguing that it was unconscionable to condone selling “rotten” food to the poor.

Such misperceptions about food “expiry dates” are rife.

The distinction most consumers don’t get is that best-before (BB) dates, found mostly on stable shelf foods such as canned goods, pasta, coffee and biscuits, are about food quality and taste, not safety. So while a biscuit eaten a few weeks or even months past its best by date may not taste great, it’s very unlikely to make you ill. Essentially the BB date means “not of ideal quality after this date, but still edible”.

But you shouldn’t risk eating meat products or other perishables which are past their use-by dates, because those dates are indeed about food safety, and there’s a good chance you’ll end up with food poisoning.

So where do sell-by dates fit in? They are a guide for retailers, being a few days before the use-by date, giving consumers some time to safely consume the product after purchase – having stored it appropriately.

Interestingly, South Africa’s food labelling regulations don’t outlaw the selling of food products past their best-by dates, but clearly, given that they are no longer at their best, they should be sold at a discounted price, as Melville suggested. Given the safety implications, it’s illegal to sell or even donate food past its “use by” date.

There is growing pressure in Europe to ban best-before dates on shelf-stable food, in a bid to cut down on the amount of edible food which is unnecessarily wasted. In light of Melville’s comments, I asked SA’s major supermarket groups about their current policies on “expired” products. Both Pick n Pay and the Shoprite Checkers chain send food which has reached its sell-by date, but not yet its use-by date, to Foodbank SA, a not-for-profit organisation that collects “surplus” food from manufacturers and retailers and redistributes it to needy South Africans every day.

Shoprite Checkers said it would support any initiative that would curb the “overzealous discarding of food”, including “a change to food expiry date labelling and education to change consumer behaviour”.

Neil Davison, Foodbank SA’s national operations manager, confirmed that the organisation currently only distributes food that’s within its use-by or best-before date.

“Several countries, including the US, have national Good Samaritan laws that protect donors against legal liability connected with donating food, as long as the donated food is fit for human consumption,” he said. If a similar law were to be implemented here, he said, FoodBank SA would be able to to collect and distribute much larger volumes of donated food that would otherwise have gone to waste.

Asked for its views on the issue, the South African Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST) said that once food with a “use by” date had been opened, it was important that consumers followed the manufacturer’s instructions, for example to “eat within three days of opening”.

But not all “off” food is unsafe to eat. “Take pasteurised milk,” SAAFoST said.

“Beyond its use-by date it will go sour because of spoilage organisms in the milk. It may taste bad, but drinking it will not cause illness, as pasteurisation kills any disease causing micro-organisms that may have been present in the raw milk.”

US scientist Dana Gunders makes the same point in her Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook. “Foodborne illness comes from contamination, not from the natural process of decay,” she writes.

Given that best-before dates are about aesthetic appeal and taste, rather than food safety, does SAAFoST advocate the eating of food beyond its best-before date? Well, no, not exactly. The organisation leans on the side of caution.

“The manufacturer has good reasons for prescribing whatever ‘best before’ date has been chosen and, at the very least, you should seek advice from the manufacturer on individual products before doing so.”

By Wendy Knowler

CONTACT: E-mail consumer@knowler.co.za or Twitter: @wendyknowler

Wendy Knowler

This article first appeared in The Times

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