When Food Should Be Sold vs. Used

Discussion
Sep 23, 2011

According to Newton’s laws of physics (definitely not my strong suit), every action has a reaction. So it is with British government advice that food packaging labels should not include sell-by dates (which The Independent says are already "largely defunct") or display until dates, generally used for stock rotation purposes.

Caroline Spelman, environment secretary at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggests products should only be labeled with one date either best before or use by. According to Food and Drink Europe and others, she added, "Many people do not understand the meaning of the labels and mistakenly believe that products are no longer safe to consume." The Guardian report is one emphasizing the intention is to "reduce food waste" caused by fears that food is unsafe sooner than is the case, causing an estimated £12 billion (or 12 million tons) in unnecessary waste annually.

Just-food quotes the reaction of food ethics council executive director, Tom MacMillan, applauding the action but then the reaction of Andrew Opie, food director of the British Retail Consortium, who argues, "If the government really wants to make a difference to reducing food waste it should be educating consumers about the two basic terms use by and best before. This system is carefully used by retailers and it isn’t complicated."

Food and Drink Europe says Barbara Gallani of the Food and Drink Federation believes best before and use by dates provide "very valuable information … on safety and quality." In spite of the BRC’s reaction, Food and Drink Europe explains "the new rules were drawn up following a consultation … with supermarkets, manufacturers, consumer groups, regulators, and waste reduction groups," while The Grocer points out that the guidance is non-binding and "calls on the food industry to develop more specific advice."

Clarification is provided in the Guardian: "’Use by’ labels should only be used if food could be unsafe to eat after that date … ‘best before’ shows the product is no longer at its best but is still safe to consume." Fortunately for consumers, there does appear to be some consensus for an approach clarifying the terms among all those quoted in the various stories.

Discussion Questions: Are the terms best before and use by self-explanatory? Should retailers do more to ensure consumers understand date labeling so they don’t throw away food too soon?

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6 Comments on "When Food Should Be Sold vs. Used"

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Tony Orlando
Guest
6 years 2 months ago
This goes back to the scary journalism on TV every day, trying the “I gotcha” mentality to make stores look bad. In 2006 our great country threw away over 90 billion pounds of edible food, which could have been reduced or gone on to local soup kitchens or food banks, because of the ridiculous rules some states have. Common sense is truly lacking in the ways we handle close coded food, and now we have these small salvage grocery stores opening all over the country re-selling perfectly good food that big chains get rid of, and they are doing quite… Read more »
Doron Levy
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Doron Levy
6 years 2 months ago

No, consumers look at the date and it’s past that date, they throw it away. There is not real explanation to how best before dates work and no grocer that I am aware of offers any signage or information on how to read and use best before dates. In this era of non-wastefulness, we should do a better job at educating the consumer without actually poisoning them.

Art Williams
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Art Williams
6 years 2 months ago

The labeling in this country is fine but a better education to the general population would be beneficial. Who would most logically bear the cost of this education may be the problem. Manufacturers have no real incentive to do this.

It’s hard to understand how anyone could be confused by the labeling, but the numbers indicate that they are. Food pantries have become experts at reading the labels properly and their recipients have benefited from this situation.

Kai Clarke
Guest
6 years 2 months ago

Education vs. communication. This is a clear case of great communication but poor education. Educating the public is a monumental task and not one that is easily or inexpensively done. In this case, it is better to remove these confusing dates and either replace them with an accurate set of dates that actually reflect the dates the product needs to be disposed of, or simply leave them off of the product altogether.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
6 years 2 months ago

What’s clearly clear is that the various phrases are confusing. I’d add that I’m just as confused about the various food label date references and codes used on this side of the Atlantic. Eliminating the “sell by” and “display until” references seems a good start to helping consumers make informed buying decisions so they don’t waste money and food — which should be the ultimate goal. But additional education certainly needs to be undertaken to ensure consumers understand the “best before” and “use by” dates.

Nikki Baird
Guest
6 years 2 months ago
I confess, I’m confused by the labeling. I’m definitely in the hyper-sensitive category of consumer (I once had to be hospitalized for a severe case of food poisoning. It was from a restaurant, but believe me, I’m super-vigilant at home as a result). To me, “use by” and “best before” equate to the same thing. I have no clue how long shelf-stable goods, in particular, should last, and isn’t it kind of disconcerting to think that while my fresh tomatoes might last 2 weeks in the fruit & vege box in my refrigerator, my jar of spaghetti sauce might make… Read more »
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