Why “best before” food labeling isn’t the best for the planet or your budget

UK supermarkets have removed ‘best before’ dates on thousands of fresh food products in an effort to reduce food waste.

One major supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, is replacing these labels with product messages that say “No date helps reduce waste”.

Apples, bananas, potatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli are among the most wasteful foods. Removing the “best before” labels from these foods alone will reduce waste by about 50,000 tons per year.

In Australia, we generate 7.6 million tons of food waste each year – about 300 kg per person. About 70% of what we throw away is still edible. Why not follow the example of the UK?

Read more: Getting rid of expiration dates can prevent massive amounts of food waste — here’s what can help too

Some may worry about food safety. But two types of date labels – ‘best before’ and ‘used before’ – are used in Australia. “Use by” labels will still alert us to the time when food can no longer be considered safe to eat.

Consumers will still be able to assess the condition of fresh produce for themselves.

Food waste has huge impacts

Food waste costs Australia A$36.6 billion annually.

This waste occurs directly across the supply chain, including primary production, manufacturing, distribution, retail and hospitality. However, homes generate more than half of the waste, with an average cost per household from A$2,000 to A$2,500 per year.

In 2017, the Australian government pledged to halve food waste by 2030 when it launched the National Food Waste Strategy.

This is a complex problem, but one simple solution might be to follow the UK and remove the “best before” dates.

Read more: Want to reduce food waste at home? Here are the top 6 evidence-based ways to do just that

How will you know if the food is still safe?

Our labeling system is pretty straightforward, but many consumers don’t understand the difference between “best before” and “use before.” This confusion leads them to throw away tons of food that is still fit to eat.

In Australia, the Food Standards Regulatory Authority provides guidance to manufacturers, retailers and consumers about the use of dates on product labels. These dates indicate how long food products can be sold and kept before they deteriorate or become unsafe to eat.

Food with a ‘best before’ date can be legally sold and consumed after that date. These products should be safe, but they may lose some of their quality.

Products past the “use by date” are considered unsafe.

The food supplier is responsible for placing date labels on the product.

Differences in packaging and labeling date can be subtle. For example, lettuce sold in bulk or in open plastic wrap does not have a “best before” date. The same lettuce packed in a closed bag does.

“Best Before” ratings can be very subjective.
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Bread is the only fresh food that uses a different system with labels for “baked” or “baked” dates.

Some foods, such as canned goods and foods with a shelf life of two years or more, should not be labeled with “best before” dates because they usually retain their quality for many years. They are usually eaten well before they deteriorate.

Food producers and retailers are keen to keep the labeling the same, as it facilitates inventory management and encourages turnover.

packaging case

Some packages are used to separate brand-name products such as breeder-protected fruit varieties, organic products, and incomplete vegetable groups. Once packaged, these products require a “best before” date.

Plastic packaging can significantly increase the shelf life of some vegetables. In these cases, it effectively reduces food waste. A striking example is the option. Plastic wrap can extend its shelf life from a few days to two weeks.

Vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower contain beneficial anti-cancer compounds called glucosinolates. Plastic containers that seal in specialty gases keep them longer. However, overcooking quickly erases this encapsulation feature.

A box filled with plastic-wrapped cucumbers
The plastic wrap significantly increases the shelf life of the option.
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Read more: Why some plastic packaging is essential to prevent food waste and protect the environment

dead or alive?

The chemistry of a fruit or vegetable begins to change the moment it is picked. Some types of produce, such as bananas and pears, are picked early to ripen in the store and at home. Other products, such as sweet corn and peas, quickly degrade in the quality and quantity of flavors and nutrients once they’ve been picked. Sudden freezing is an excellent way to preserve this product.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are still alive. Their cells remain full of chemical reactions and enzymatic activity.

This is why a cut apple turns brown. This is also why the ethylene gas emitted by bananas and other fruits can shorten the life of their neighbors in the fruit bowl.

Potatoes, among the most wasted products, are sold as “best before” dates when packed in plastic bags. But if stored properly in low light and in a “breathable” bag (paper or burlap), potatoes remain “alive” and edible for months. Just be sure to cut out any green parts that contain the toxic solanine.

In addition to the cellular activity of fresh products, there is microbial activity in the form of bacteria and fungi.

Fortunately, we are equipped with a number of sophisticated chemical sensors. We can feel, see, smell and taste the state of fruits, vegetables and other products. Trust (and train) your instincts.

Read more: Food expiration dates don’t have a lot of science behind them – a food safety researcher explains another way to tell what’s too old to eat

Questions to ask yourself

To reduce food waste, we need a range of approaches, including proper packaging, sensible labeling and consumer awareness.

Ideally, the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Act would be updated to reflect a more nuanced view of fresh, packaged foods.

In the short term, consumer awareness and purchasing power are the best drivers of change. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Do I need a packaged product?

  • Does the packaging enhance the shelf life?

  • Would I buy less if it wasn’t packaged?

Reflecting on these questions will help us reduce the effects of food waste.

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