How much notice do you take of “best before” dates? A new plan to overhaul the system aims to clear consumer confusion and cut food waste – so what do you think should be done with “best before” dates?
A quick question to get started – do you know the difference between “best before” and “use by” dates?
If you’re like me, you’re probably mumbling something about fresh versus dried foods, but do you know which date is used on each? I thought it was clear in my mind before I spoke to our in-house nutritionist, Shefalee Loth:
‘If you eat a product after the best before date it won’t taste its best but it won’t harm you. It is used on dried and canned food for example. A use by date is more important as after this the product is considered unsafe to eat. Use by dates are used on products such as fish, meat and dairy. You shouldn’t get the two dates on one product.’
So how come there are generally two dates on my food? ‘That will be either a “sell by” or “display until” date,’ she explains.
Plans for a shake-up
I’m glad that’s cleared up, but it has highlighted how we make assumptions about what we’re buying. Is having four different names for essentially two different things (when a product should be bought by and when it should be eaten by) really necessary?
Ministers don’t seem to think so – they’re expected to be unveiling new guidelines to simplify the use of these dates and clear up consumers’ confusion. This could mean an end to the best before dates that many people religiously follow.
While the exact details appear to be a bit fluffy at the moment, the main crux of the argument seems to focus on the amount of food we chuck out when it hits the best before date. A lot of which, it’s argued, is perfectly fine to eat.
A war on waste
A study by WRAP suggested that this kind of attitude contributes to 5.3m tonnes of edible food waste in the UK each year. Put that into context – each day we throw out 5 million potatoes, 4.4 million apples, a million loaves of bread and a million slices of ham. Whoa, I’ll remember that next time some food is heading for my bin.
There’s been a lot of talk of ‘sniff and see’ on the back of this news, something I’m a big advocate of. Often (even with perishables and dairy), I find that food lasts well beyond the use by date, which makes them a bit redundant in my mind.
And yet I’m still not sure that ditching best before dates altogether is the best option. As Shefalee pointes out, ‘”sniff and see” isn’t a failsafe method. Meat, fish or dairy could contain harmful bacteria long before they smell ‘off’.’
Plus, if people already happily throw away perfectly good food just because a date tells them to, won’t having no date at all make them even more nervous? Cue lots of panic and even more food being thrown out unnecessarily.
Should we keep best before dates?
Rumours suggest that some kind of use by date is expected remain. I’m interested to see how this all pans out – evidently we need more clarity, but we all have different attitudes to food consumption, so better education about food waste should accompany a new strategy.
What are your attitudes to best before and use by dates, and what would you like to see in the new rules?