Europe thinks it's time for 'best before' dates to expire

egg with expiry date
CC BY 2.0 Mark Turnauckas

Too much food is thrown away just because it has reached the 'best before' date.

‘Best before’ does not mean ‘toxic after’. An estimated 15 million tons of food is wasted annually in the European Union, and 15 percent of that is caused by “the wrong interpretation of best before dates,” according to Sharon Dijksma, minister for agriculture in the Netherlands.

Currently the EU requires that all packaged foods have a best before date, but there is growing pressure to loosen up the rules and potentially ban best before dates on shelf-stable foods. Due to pressure from the Dutch and Swedish agriculture ministers, a working group has been created by the European Commission (EU executive body) to examine the issue of best before dates; a report on food sustainability is supposed to be published at the end of this month.

Shelf-stable foods, such as pasta, rice, flour, and coffee, do not go bad after a given date, but simply cease to be as fresh. ‘Best before’ really just means “not of ideal quality, but still edible.” The Commission, however, estimates that only 50 percent of Europeans correctly understand its meaning, and are further confused by all the other terms out there, like ‘use by,’ ‘sell by,’ and ‘freeze by.’ By banning best before dates on pantry staples, it is hoped that people will use foods longer before throwing them out.

These proposed regulations make me think of my frugal mother, who always said that if there’s mold on cheese, yogurt, or jam, you just cut out the moldy bit and keep eating. Moldy bread gets trimmed and pulverized into breadcrumbs. If there are weevils in the flour, you can sift them out. By contrast, I have a dear friend who threw out multiple jars of natural peanut butter because the oil separated and “it had gone bad.” I was speechless with horror when I heard that.

Not everyone thinks that banning best before dates is an effective solution to the food waste crisis. According to a Danish group called Stop Wasting Food, cited in this article by Civil Eats, most food waste happens with perishable fruits, vegetables, breads, and dairy products – not the stable pantry staples targeted by the EU Commission: “Our surveys show that yes, consumers throw rice and pasta away, but only because they have cooked too much,” says founder Selina Juul.

While Juul is probably right, I do think it’s important to encourage consumers to rely on their own senses to detect whether or not food is still safe to eat. Anything that builds a more intimate relationship between eater and food is a good thing, especially if it reduces waste.

Tags: Food Safety | Food Security | Fruits & Vegetables | Waste

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