Image: Are confusing ‘best before’ dates to blame for high levels of food waste in the home? Photo: courtesy of Freedom_Studio

Use by, best before, best before end, sell by. When purchasing products in supermarkets, or filtering out gone-off food from the fridge, shelf life plays an important role in what consumers choose to keep or discard. While a number of these shelf life labels are largely interchangeable, the confusion over what is or is not safe to eat is often left up to the interpretation of these phrases by the consumer.

According to the European Commission (EC) approximately a third of food waste created at the household level “could be linked to date marking due, amongst others, to consumer misunderstanding of the meaning of these dates”. While it is true that a lot of food is discarded because it has passed the point at which it is deemed safe to the consumer, a worryingly large amount is still perfectly edible, if a little past its prime.

In an exploratory behavioural study on consumer choices and food sustainability carried out for the EC at the Milan Expo 2015, only 47% of consumers could correctly understand the meaning of the ‘Best Before’ date. “The presence of a ‘Best Before’ date makes consumers less likely to throw away a product before that date is reached,” reads the study. “But the presence of either a ‘Best Before’ or a ‘production’ date makes consumers more likely to throw it away after the date has passed.”

So what exactly do these dates mean? And why are they so confusing for consumers?

The legal responsibility of food manufacturers

" It is an offence to sell any food after the ‘use by’ date."

While not all food is required to display an expiration date, current European Union (EU) regulation dictates the use of a date mark for specific food products. For example, in accordance with EU law, eggs must be marked with a ‘best before’ date, and pre-packed fresh poultry meat is required to bear a ‘use by’ date.

There is no definitive list of the foods that should carry a particular type of date mark, which is a particular source of confusion for consumers. If a product is marked ‘best before’ it means that the food is still OK for consumption once the date has passed, although it may not be at its best – and it is up to the consumer to judge whether or not it is still edible.

On the other hand ‘use by’ is far stricter in its meaning, as these dates refer to the safety of the food. The product can be eaten up to the end of this date but not after, even if it looks and smells fine. These labels are commonly found upon food products that are highly perishable from a microbiological point of view, such as meat and dairy.

From a retailer standpoint, the law around food dating is a simple, as stated in the Guidance on the Application of Date Labels to Food report published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The report reads: “It is an offence to sell any food after the ‘use by’ date. However, it is not an offence to sell food after the ‘best before’ date, provided it still complies with the Food Safety Act 1990 and the General Food Regulations 2004.”

In addition to these legal terms, additional markings increase the amount of consumer uncertainty. For example ‘sell-by’ and ‘display-by’ instructions, which are used by the food industry for stock control purposes, can be mistaken for expiry dates. As the report states: “There is evidence from Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and general correspondence from consumers that some consumers do not understand the difference between the legally required date marks and those used by food businesses for stock control purposes.”

Using consumer judgement to determine food quality

"There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States."

Once purchased, it is then up to the consumer to judge whether food is still edible. This lack of understanding of food quality is leading to a high percentage of food waste, with consumers erring on the side of caution and throwing away edible food because it is two or three days ‘out-of-date’. According to shelf-life guide StillTasty, “After the ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date has passed, you may start to notice gradual changes in the unopened product’s texture, color, or flavor. But as long as you’ve been storing the unopened item properly, you can generally consume it beyond this date. Your best bet for gauging whether an unopened shelf-stable product with this type of date is still of satisfactory quality, is to simply smell and examine it first.”

This confusing method of cross-dating food is not just confined to the EU. In America the guidelines are equally perplexing. According to the US Department of Agriculture, “There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated.”

The DEFRA report confirms this chain of responsibility, noting: “It is the responsibility of those originally labelling the food, namely the manufacturer, packer or EU seller, to set the appropriate durability indication or date mark, together with the storage instructions required to achieve that shelf life. In practice, the brand owner will be involved in decisions about the setting of the date mark.”

Changes to shelf life labelling

" Further relaxation of the labelling scheme could therefore deepen consumer mistrust."

In 2014, a movement to remove compulsory ‘best before’ labels on coffee, rice, dry pasta, hard cheeses, jams and pickles in order to help reduce the amount of food wasted across Europe each year began to gain traction. The hope being that removing the dates would ease consumer fear of eating food that would have a negative impact on health.

However, support for the change is not unanimous. In a letter sent to the European Parliament (EP), Camille Perrin senior food policy officer for the Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) addressed the need for change in food waste policies across the entire supply chain, rather than spotlighting the waste produced at household level. Perrin also noted the inconsistencies in the reports provided to the EP in favour of changing the expiry date system.

“Recent research conducted in Germany and Austria has shown that 80% of the food that is thrown away at home consists in fresh fruits and vegetables, bread and bakery products, meat and meat products, and milk and dairy,” she wrote. “These are foods that either do not bear any date at all or that mostly have a ‘use by’ date. Therefore before deciding on a measure that might actually miss its target, it would be useful to investigate if similar studies exist in other EU countries and if they confirm such trend.”

The EP also took into consideration the impact that changes to food labels would have on consumer trust in brands. The debate came soon after the UK horsemeat scandal, and in the 'Best before' date labels: Protecting consumers and limiting food waste briefing in February 2015, there was concern within the EP that “Further relaxation of the labelling scheme could therefore deepen consumer mistrust and render control over products exempted from 'best before' labelling less transparent, thereby prompting an increase in fraudulent packaging and labelling practices.”

If changes to ‘best before’ dating do occur, they are unlikely to be seen on our shelves any time soon. Meanwhile the amount of food waste is rising and while a portion of the blame lies with consumer confusion, in order for substantial changes to take place, food waste needs to be addressed throughout the entire supply chain.