The myth of the best before date

24 Mar 2014


The one thing that everyone today can be guaranteed to notice on packaging is the best before date.  It is applied universally in Europe and North America and in many other countries besides.  You will know it as the date after which you throw food out.  But that is a mistake.

Knowing a little bit about the packaging industry, thumb and of course wanting to save money, search I often use the special offers in supermarkets I visit where the food is due to hit the best before date.  I know that I do not have to eat the food immediately, however most consumers believe that it tells them whether a food product is still edible. The best-before date is simply the date until when a product retains its original qualities under proper storage. It means that, until that date, the product will have the same colour, consistency and maximum effectiveness of its active ingredients as it did immediately
upon production.

What the best-before date does not tell you is the period of time when the product is safe to consume. And, in fact, in most cases it does indeed continue to be safe. So the best-before date is by no means an expiry date or a use-by date.

The best-before date is a legal requirement, but is decided from case to case by each manufacturer and can therefore vary for the same kind of product and can ?expire? either earlier or later. Ultimately, each consumer needs to decide for themselves how long yoghurt and similar products are safe to consume. But there are a few rules of thumb.
Sliced cheese, for instance, will keep for another two weeks after the best-before date, and hard cheese will even keep for over a year. Fresh milk will survive in the fridge for another week, and UHT milk for several weeks. Cold meat ? kept within the package ? continues to be perfectly edible for another two or three days after the best-before date. One item
that will keep for an amazingly long time is jam, which continues to be edible for several years after the best-before date.

It?s certainly worthwhile having a good look and letting our senses decide. In this way we can make a major contribution to avoiding food loss, as about a third of all manufactured food is either lost or wasted throughout the world.

An even better level of certainty can be achieved through intelligent packaging systems as a good practical alternative to the use-by date. Smart packaging solutions ? e.g. time/temperature indicators ? tell us about the freshness of a product throughout its
lifetime, signalling to the consumer whether there have been interruptions in the refrigeration chain. Another example is the use of packaging film which changes colour in response to metabolites, so that it becomes quite obvious when a packaged product ceases to be edible.

Is it time for a change in the law on the best before date?  Probably!  But what information would the new law require?

Peter Martin 26 Mar 2014 at 13:06

Agree totally.
However, as you mention the law:

“What the best-before date does not tell you is the period of time when the product is safe to consume. And, in fact, in most cases it does indeed continue to be safe.”

Unless you get Shakspearean on the profession, lest there be a case that’s not ‘most’, I’d hazard the food industry will err on the side of caution, on a lesser of two damned bases.

Tut-tuts from green groups on waste is one PR challenge; suits on tummy upsets another order of grief.

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