We have spoken before about the key differences between Compostable, Biodegradable and Recyclable plastic, and how knowing what they mean can help us cut down on waste, so today we want to focus on ‘Sell by’, ’Best Before’ and ‘Use By’ labels, and how knowing what they actually stand for may help us cut down on food waste.
By definition ‘food waste’ refers to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally each year.
This can happen when fresh produce that deviates from what is considered optimal (for example in terms of shape, size and color) is removed from the supply chain, or when large quantities of unused or left over food are discarded from household kitchens and eating establishments.
Unfortunately, both retailers and consumers are guilty of throwing away perfectly edible food that is close to, at, or beyond the date listed on its label, but what do those labels actually mean, and can understanding them help us cut down on our carbon footprint?
Sell by date
The ‘Sell by’ (or ‘Display Until’) label is aimed at retailers, and it informs them of the date by which the product should be sold or removed from the shelf. This is not an expiration date, and therefore it does not mean that the product is unsafe to consume past this date. Typically in fact one-third of a product's shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home.
‘Best Before’ (or ‘Best if used by’) is also not a label that defines whether a product is safe or not, but it’s a date that indicates when the product will be at its best flavor or quality wise. This means that your food will taste better if you use it before that date, but it won’t necessarily have gone bad, or perform as it should, if you try it after that date. This label is usually found on foods with a longer shelf life, including fresh, frozen, dried and tinned.
Use your common sense on this one. If the product was properly stored and it hadn’t been opened yet, it’s probably still ok to eat. It won’t maybe taste as good or be as ideal quality as if you had eaten it earlier, but depending on what it is, and what you were planning to do with it, it could still be consumed.
PLEASE NOTE that eggs can be eaten 24/48 hours after their ‘Best before’ date has passed, ONLY if they are thoroughly cooked (either until the white and yolk are both solid or if the egg is baked into another food) to kill any harmful bacteria such as, for example, salmonella.
This last label applies to the few products that are highly perishable, that require refrigeration and/or that have a food safety concern over time, such as for example fish, meat products, pre-prepared foods and dairy products. Basically the ‘Use By’ date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while its at peak quality. This doesn’t mean that the product will necessarily get you sick (although some might), but the quality will have gone down quit a lot and the products safety could be lessened (remember that harmful bacteria cannot be seen and does not have a smell) .
If you see that a product is approaching its ‘Use by’ date and you know you won’t be able to consume it before that, you could always freeze it and extends its life (DO NOT freeze food after its ‘Use By’ date). Remember though that once you defrosted it, you should eat it within 24 hours.
How are those dates decided
It’s important to know that in the U.S not only is there no federal regulation about these labels, but there’s also no authority enforcing a clear, single standard. When dealing with overseas products things can get even more complicated as other countries may have their own standards and practices. For example, in the European Union ‘Use By’ stickers are required as safety labels, while in the U.S those same labels could simply be placed as quality suggestions.
Companies tend to put those dates as a way to protect their products standards and quality, in order to ensure that consumers eat their food while the flavor is at its best. These dates are usually achieved through three main methods: taste tests, literature values (recommended dates for a product’s shelf life) and lab tests to investigate how long the product will be at its best quality.
Obviously these methods are largely used by big companies, while smaller food businesses, which cannot afford testing methods but that are legally required to print labels, will very likely base their dates on competitors with similar products.
What can you do?
Aside from relying on common sense, to avoid throwing out perfectly edible food, experts advise downloading Apps, or researching food items to find out how long they really last.
Typically the most dangerous food items, or the ones that are most susceptible to contamination are pre-cooked items as well as deli meats. Make sure you store these items correctly and for no more than 4 days at 4C or 40F. Inspect products before eating them by checking for growths and/or off-smells. Also read the label and look out for terms such as Sodium Lactate or Potassium Diacetate, as both these ingredients indicate that what you are eating has been reformulated to inhibit the growth of Listeria.
Other ways to avoid wasting food, apart from storing products correctly, is to be more realistic and organized when grocery shopping. Make a list of things you actually need and that you know you will have time to cook in the short-term. This will make sure you don’t buy things you already have in your home, as well as things you will actually use, rather than over spending on impulse purchases.
Also, learn to get creative with leftovers (and dispose of them correctly) by repurposing extra food you find yourself with.