Canadians love best-before dates, even if they lead to food waste

UK grocers are removing best-before dates to reduce food waste. A new report sheds light on what these dates mean to Canadians

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The next time you’re about to pitch an unopened bottle of ketchup, can of soup or half-empty carton of eggs just because the best-before date has passed, consider this: The term “best before” is not synonymous with “toss despues de.”

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Best-before dates are an indicator of quality, not safety. Past-dated foods may lose freshness or flavor, and their texture might change. But these differences do not necessarily mean they’re no longer fit to eat.

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Labeled on everything from cartons of milk to salad kits and vacuum-sealed fish fillets, best-before dates are omnipresent. According to Health Canada, they’re mandatory on almost all pre-packaged foods that will stay fresh for up to 90 days.

Some people use the terms “best before” and “expiry” interchangeably. Unlike the former, though, which you can push past, expiration dates should be heeded. They also apply to just five types of food: baby formula, foods for low-energy diets, formulated liquid diets, meal replacements and nutritional supplements.

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Date labeling can be confusing, and this confusion leads to food waste. British grocers, including Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, have recently removed best-before dates from packaged fruit and vegetables, reportedly to help people waste less. But would Canadians be willing to do the same?

According to a new report by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab (AAL), Canadians are not open to giving them up anytime soon. Most are against scrapping best-before dates to reduce food waste.

“Canadians are addicted to best-before dates. The results are basically showing that right now,” says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the AAL. “Essentially a quarter of Canadians would be able to live without.”

Canada’s food safety system is among the world’s best, and Canadians have confidence in it, explains Mark Juhasz, an AAL research associate. A strong food safety culture could help explain the difference in attitudes.

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UK supermarkets including Waitrose and Marks & Spencer have removed best-before dates from fresh produce, reportedly to reduce food waste. Photo by Daniel Leal /AFP via Getty Images

How often Canadians look at best-before dates depends on the food category, the report found. Of the 1,508 Canadians surveyed in August, 73 per cent always refer to best-before dates on dairy products, 69 per cent on seafood and 66 per cent on meat.

At the other end of the spectrum, 32 per cent look at dates on non-perishable packaged foods and 39 per cent on produce.

Openness to buying products without a best-before date also varied widely by food category. Sixty-eight per cent of Canadians would buy produce without a best-before date, but only 15 per cent would be willing to do so with dairy products.

People trust their judgment with fruit and vegetables, says Charlebois. With animal-based foods, “not so much.”

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Juhasz attributes these findings to people’s attitudes towards risk. “(There’s) a big distinction between produce and dairy. It’s almost twice as much of a concern over the importance of best-before dates. And that probably has a lot to do with the sense of risk, let’s say, of getting sick from eating sour milk, or milk gone bad.”

Canadians’ acute reliance on best-before dates with dairy could be a product of past experiences with milk souring before the date had passed, Charlebois highlights. It may also be partly due to misconceptions.

According to Second Harvest, you can consume milk up to two weeks past the best-before date (unless your senses tell you otherwise). Yogurt is safe to eat for at least one to two weeks past the best-before date, food scientist Jeffrey Farber told the National Post in 2020; opened hard cheese will last three to four weeks (up to six months unopened) and butter up to a month, says Alberta Milk.

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Seventy-three per cent of Canadians always look at best-before dates on dairy products, the report found. Photo by Justin Sullivan /Getty Images

Comfort zones vary from person to person, says Juhasz. If the primary grocery buyer is immunocompromised or pregnant, shopping for kids or seniors, they are likely to make different decisions than a healthy, single 20-something-year-old, for instance.

Economics also comes into play. “Best-before dates help people save money, because you can actually use time to your advantage,” says Charlebois.

“Every one of us has considered time as part of our grocery experience,” he adds. Whenever you reach the back of the dairy case for the most recently stocked carton, you’re attempting to buy as long as possible.

Buying close- or past-dated food, on the other hand, can result in significant savings. If you buy a tub of yogurt the day before the best-before date, for example, the grocer could offer you up to 50 per cent off.

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“If there are no best-before dates, how do you offer discounts to consumers? And I think a lot of Canadians would wonder how food economics would work without best-before dates,” says Charlebois.

Forty-four per cent of Canadians have bought past-dated food at a discount, 65 per cent have thrown out unopened food because its best-before date had passed and 78 per cent have eaten food after its best-before date.

Here lies a paradox in the findings, the report’s authors say. While many Canadians buy and eat past-dated food, others toss it.

Income factors in as well, says Juhasz. “With food inflation and inflation in general, people are probably more cost-sensitive, and will likely be for the next half-year to year — hopefully not much longer.

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“And that’s going to have implications on how people are buying their groceries, but also what they’re doing with (them). So, hopefully, it’s leading to people making the best use of their food.”

In the UK, grocers have encouraged shoppers to “use the sniff test” with cow’s milk and trust their judgment with fresh food products in the absence of date labelling.

Even though best-before dates indicate freshness and potential shelf life, 25 per cent of Canadians see them as a measure of food safety, the report found. Twenty-eight per cent look for mould, 20 per cent use their sense of smell and 17 per cent decide whether food is safe to eat or not based on appearance.

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“It is important to note that most microorganisms that can make people sick do not change the smell or the look of the food,” the report says.

According to the Food Sustainability Index, the average Canadian wastes 79 kilograms of food at home each year. That’s more than the average American (59 kilograms) and the average Briton (77 kilograms).

Food waste is a critical issue, Juhasz says, but he has “a degree of skepticism” about the motivation to remove best-before dates in the UK In the face of supply chain issues and labor shortages, the timing is worth considering.

Grocery retailers have many initiatives aimed at reducing food waste, Juhasz underscores. There are apps, partnerships with food banks, composting programs and internal processing to turn past-prime products into soups or sauces. Removing best-before dates is one of many strategies.

“I wonder, who is it best serving, really? Like, it is being branded as a food waste strategy, but maybe it’s a supply chain management strategy as another major motive,” says Juhasz. “It’s not to say that (we should) just throw it out completely. But more than that, we need to understand the nuances and motivations of it.”

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