Nikkel: ‘Best before’ dates on food are long past their prime in Canada

Food waste is a serious issue with wide-reaching impacts. Research shows that nearly 60 per cent of all food produced in Canada — or 35.5 million tonnes — is lost or wasted annually.

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Recently, major grocery retailers in the United Kingdom announced plans to scrap “best before” dates on hundreds of products, in a very public attempt to tackle food waste. Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Morrison have led the way, and it’s expected more will follow suit. The European Commission anticipates that 10 per cent of all food waste in the continent could be avoided with a better date labeling system.

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Best before dates are about qualitynot security. They are not the same as expiration dates.

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As a consumer, it is important to understand what best before dates actually mean and how they’re determined. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, “it is the responsibility of the manufacturer or retailer to determine the specific durable life information for the products they sell. Foods with an anticipated shelf life greater than 90 days are not required to be labeled with a best before date or storage information.”

In other words, best before dates are created by the same companies invested in consumers buying their products as regularly as possible. Without real guidelines in place, there’s plenty of potential for the system to be abused in pursuit of profits.

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In Canada, there are only five types of foods that sport current expiration dates, that is, dates after which they “should not be bought, sold or eaten,” according to the CFIA: Baby formula; nutritional supplements and meal replacements; formulated liquid diets and foods for low-energy diets that you’d typically buy at a pharmacy. In the grand scheme of food, this is an extremely small minority.

It’s estimated that 21 per cent of avoidable food loss and waste occurs at the consumer level. Best before dates are a significant driver here, as consumers have been shown to interpret “best before” as synonymous with “bad after.” Processors and manufacturers have historically leveraged this confusion to use overly conservative best before dates to drive increased sales.

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A sustainability study from 2018 at the Université du Québec à Montréal found consumers place a high value on best before dates, even if food is generally perfectly safe to eat. Respondents reported reaching to the back of a shelf to buy items with distant best before dates and throwing away items whose best before dates had passed, or even some as the date was approaching.

Though the recent news about best before dates has been driven by announcements from grocery retailers, they certainly aren’t the only ones with a role in taking corrective steps to address this issue. Governments should establish clear and enforceable policies related to date coding; manufacturers should eliminate date codes from products with no food safety implications; and consumers should use their judgment when deciding if something is good to eat.

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Food waste is a serious issue that has wide-reaching impacts. When we’re experiencing a scarcity in global food reserves and greenhouse gas emissions from landfills are choking the environment, it doesn’t make sense to ignore this issue. Research shows that nearly 60 per cent of all food produced in Canada — or 35.5 million tonnes — is lost or wasted annually. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the average Canadian wastes about 79 kilograms of food every year, surpassing the average American by 20 kilograms.

As Canadians we’re lagging behind when it comes to taking the issue of food waste seriously. It’s time that we give best before dates a sniff test.

Lori Nikkel is the CEO of Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization. As CEO, she has scaled the organization nationwide and directed the publication of the first report to quantify food waste in Canada. In the last 12 months, she has overseen the provision of 42 million meals to a network of non-profits, averting 162 million pounds of greenhouse gases from the environment by keeping surplus edible food out of landfills.

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