A widely-held belief that food becomes “off”, rotten or a food poisoning risk the day after its “expiry date” has consumers around the world throwing away huge amounts of perfectly safe, edible food.

Now governments around the world are finally doing something to try to change that mindset.

The misperception begins with the term “expiry date”, as it creates the impression that it’s “game over” for that can of beans or tub of yoghurt, when in fact the products have plenty of nourishing “life” left in them.

In the US, foodmakers have for years put sell-by and use-by dates on their products, despite food experts and environmentalists arguing that they lead to massive, unnecessary food waste – it’s estimated that nearly a third of all food manufactured in the US is thrown away uneaten.

In a bid to reduce that waste by giving consumers more accurate information, last Thursday (SUBS: Dec 15) the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food safety division released new industry guidelines recommending that manufacturers use the phrase “best if used by” rather than “sell by” or “use by”.

South Africa’s food labelling regulations make a very big distinction between “use by” dates and “best before” dates, but sadly it’s lost on most consumers, and apparently some of this country’s consumer protection authorities too.

Best-before (BB) dates are found mostly on shelf-stable 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 highly unlikely to make you ill.

Essentially the BB date means “not of ideal quality after this date, but still edible”. 

That’s why there’s growing pressure in Europe to ban best-before dates on shelf-stable food.

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, especially once you’ve opened the package.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, retailers have taken it upon themselves to introduce sell-by dates, being a few days before the use-by date, giving consumers some time to safely consume the product after purchase – having stored it appropriately, of course.

At a National Consumer Commission (NCC) meeting on food labelling in Pretoria last year, a senior official expressed a concern that food close to its “sell by” date was put on sale by retailers, with consumers being expected to eat a large amount of product in a short time – such as a tin of jam or fish.

And when Consumer Goods and Services Ombud Neville Melville suggested that, given that an alarming number of South Africans are food insecure, there was merit in selling certain non perishable food products beyond their BB dates at discounted prices, with full disclosure about the date mark and assurances about it remaining safe for consumption, several delegates were outraged, saying it was unconscionable to condone the selling of “rotten” food to the poor.

Such misperceptions about food “expiry dates” are rife.

But according to food scientists, tinned food can last for years without spoiling, and anyway, those tins carry best-before, not sell-by dates and South Africa’s food labelling regulations don’t outlaw the selling of food products past their best-by dates. But given that they are no longer at their best, they should ideally be sold at a discounted price.

According to a report in the Star Tribune, the USDA says food can be consumed after its “best if used by” date as long as there are no signs of spoilage.

“Spoiled foods will develop an off odour, flavour or texture due to naturally occurring spoilage bacteria,” the USDA says.

“If a food has developed such spoilage characteristics, it should not be eaten.” In other words, trust your own eyes, nose and common sense more than the date on the pack.

“The exception is pathogenic bacteria, which is undetectable,” the report said. “But if an unlucky consumer purchases a food product carrying this pathogen, the expiration date won’t protect them regardless.”

The USDA says the best safeguard against eating dangerous foods is to follow storage instructions, such as “refrigerate immediately after opening”.

Prof Gunnar Sigge, head of the University of Stellenbosch’s food science department, said the “Best if used by” which the USDA is proposing effectively combines the “best before” and “use by” date marks into one.

“To my mind, this will reduce the confusion consumers face with these two different phrases. Retailers will still be able to make sure perishables are sold when they are their freshest – which is what consumers would want – and shelf stable products would also be able to carry this message.

“Manufacturers would still protected, but consumers will possibly feel less inclined to toss something out immediately it reaches the date on the packaging.”

But consumers needed to be educated on how to interpret the date marks, and how to determine whether a food had spoiled or had just lost a little bit of colour, flavour or texture, but was still inherently safe, he said.

“The industry and retailers could do a lot to increase this awareness.”

CONTACT WENDY:

Email: consumer@knowler.co.za

Twitter: @wendyknowler

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A widely-held belief that food becomes “off”, rotten or a food poisoning risk the day after its “expiry date” has consumers around the world throwing away huge amounts of perfectly safe, edible food. Now governments around the world are finally doing something to try to change that mindset. The misperception...