Best before dates belong in the bin.
“Best before” means that the food is at its prime before this date, but is still totally safe to eat afterwards. However, many people take this as a cue to throw it away.
The “use by” dates are the ones that you need to take notice of. But even then, some foods don’t need them. Some products last ages, and the dates are there to cover the food companies’ back in case someone gets sick.
A Women’s Institute study in 2016 found that only 45% of UK adults understand that “best before” isn’t about safety, and WRAP estimates that 30% of all food waste at home comes from misunderstanding labels. It’s a huge and completely fixable barrier to reducing food waste at home.
There have been education campaigns to try and make people understand them better, but if you need a whole separate campaign to get people to understand your system, surely that’s a sign that the system wasn’t very good in the first place?
Too Good To Go has a campaign to encourage brands to use a “look, smell, taste” label instead, but I think this will just add to the layers of confusion, especially as this campaign has not been picked up across the board.
In my opinion, the best solution would be to get rid of ALL labels, apart from safety labels. So if there is a risk that an item can make you sick if left too long, pop an “use by” label on it. But otherwise, it is up to everyone to sense-check the item themselves. Which is what people have done for thousands of years, before we had aisles of food under huge corporate control.
If you think about it, produce at farmers markets and food stalls hardly ever have labels on them. It’s the supermarket model that has demanded the need for labels, as their food typically comes from further away and the producer needs to record when it was grown and how long it will last before it falls beneath the supermarket’s rigid standards. If you are buying something that has been grown around the corner, it doesn’t need to be tracked as much; you might even be buying the produce from the grower themselves and be able to ask how long they think it will last.
In fact, it has been stipulated that supermarkets deliberately put confusing labels on food products so that people are more likely to throw them away, and thus buy more food. As a supermarket profits off food being bought constantly, giving food a date after which it loses ‘quality’ means that consumers will subconsciously prefer ‘fresher’ food to produce they already have at home. (I explore how supermarkets are responsible for food waste in another blog.)
- This celery has a “best before” date of 5 July. I opened the packet on 31 July, chopped off the gooey brown bits on the end, washed the rest and it in a sealed Tupperware in the fridge. I just ate the last of it in a smoothie a week later (7 August) and it was fine.
- If you are unsure about the state of your eggs, you can do the water test. Dunk the egg in a jug of water; if it floats, it’s off.
- Make sure your fridge temperature is set below 5 degrees C; 3 or 4 degrees is optimal.
- Buy smaller bags of salad if you know you won’t get through a big one; or tip the contents of the bag into a tupperware lined with kitchen towel. Wrapping lettuce, kale or other big leaves in a lightly damp kitchen towel instead of keeping them in their plastic packaging helps reduce the manky leaves at the bottom.