Grocer Fights Food Waste by Getting Rid of Best-Before Dates

CC BY 2.0. Danielle Scott

Tesco reasons that people will be less inclined to toss fruits and vegetables if they have to assess them, rather than rely on an arbitrary printed date.

British grocer Tesco is removing best-before labels from its store-brand produce in an effort to reduce food waste. The decision is based on a recent survey conducted by the National Federation of Women's Institutes, which found that less than half of respondents understand what best-before dates mean. Tesco reasons that, by getting rid of them altogether, people will be more likely to assess a food's integrity before discarding.

Tesco's head of food waste, Mark Little, said in a press release:

“We know some customers may be confused by the difference between ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use By’ dates on food and this can lead to perfectly edible items being thrown away before they need to be discarded. We have made this change to fruit and vegetable packaging as they are among the most wasted foods.”

This is welcome news. Best-before dates have no bearing whatsoever on food safety, but are meant to guide shoppers when it comes to flavor. They are often arbitrary, created by manufacturers using differing methods to determine the dates, from lab testing to consumer satisfaction, and there is no standardized approach. Professional home economist Ellie Topp said,

"Best before dates are found on foods that will only stay fresh for 90 days or less. Some foods may be consumed even if their best before date has passed, unlike an expiry date."

Expiry dates reveal the last day when a product is safe to consume. In Canada, the CBC reports, only five categories of foods have expiration dates -- baby formula, nutritional supplements, meal replacements, pharmacist-sold foods for very low-energy diets, formulated liquid diets.

We also know that fresh fruits and vegetables are the most commonly wasted foods, which adds up to an enormous global loss of resources, nutrition, and money. A U.S. study recently found that the healthier a person's diet, the more food waste it generates, with Americans tossing nearly 1 pound of food daily, half of which is fruits and vegetables.

A best-before ban would encourage people to start using their senses when cooking, which is something I've argued for in the past. A quick examination reveals far more than a best-before date on the packaging. Some of the things I ask myself when digging through the crisper drawer and fruit bowl: Is it still the right color? Is it firm or soft in the right places? If you remove the outer layer, is the inner part still good? Is it slimy? Does it smell fine? Are there spots I can cut out? Would washing or peeling improve it?

A good rule of thumb is to eat produce as quickly as possible to maximize nutritional value. Many vitamin levels start to drop as soon as produce is picked, but the rate can slowed by refrigeration. From the Guardian:

"According to one study, spinach kept at refrigerator temperatures for eight days lost almost half of its folate, a B vitamin, with the loss accelerated at higher temperatures. Meanwhile a study by Unilever scientists found broccoli stored at room temperature retained only 44% of its vitamin C after seven days and just 28% after 14 days. However, when kept at 4C, 80% of the vitamin was retained even after three weeks. Carrots, on the other hand, lost vitamin C at a far lower rate."

Rob Bertholf -- Spinach going limp? Make smoothies, stir it into dal or soup, sauté as a side./CC BY 2.0

In some cases frozen foods can be more nutritious than fresh; if peas are frozen right after picking, then more of their nutrients are retained. Dr. Christine Bruhn of the University of California, Davis, recommends:

"The important thing is to eat fruits and veggies. The best advice is to buy and eat soon. Remember, frozen, canned and dried forms all contribute to health."

One final point is that, even if produce is past its prime, you should still eat it. Even if the vitamins are no longer at their peak, many minerals such as iron and calcium remain stable, and there's fibre and polyphenols to be gained, as well. Plus, you'll be doing the world a favor by not contributing to the enormous waste of resources that occurs when fresh food is tossed. Learn some clever techniques for using up leftover foods (we have lots of great resources on this site) and you'll be fine.

Tesco is making a smart move, and let's hope other supermarkets worldwide follow its lead.