Would removing best-before dates from produce help reduce food waste?
It’s an idea being tried in the U.K., but a food safety expert at the University of Guelph says although the concept has some merit, it’s not without pitfalls.
Dr. Keith Warriner is a professor in the Department of Food Science at the Ontario Agricultural College. He studies food-borne illness prevention, including the microbiological safety and shelf-life extension of fresh produce.
Most foods, especially those with a shelf life of 90 days or more, don’t need a best-before date, he explains. With some produce like packages of lettuce or bean sprouts, the date is set conservatively because of issues with handling practices that could influence how long the product will last.
“It’s not a food safety issue but more that people don’t want to use mouldy fruit or brown lettuce, so best-before dates provide an estimate of time before spoilage symptoms begin to appear,” he says.
Warriner says removing them could help reduce food waste and could enable consumers to judge for themselves whether a product is good or not.
“Fresh fruit and vegetables account for 40 per cent of food waste, with a high proportion being removed from the shelf by the retailer or thrown out by the consumer by referring to the best-before date,” he says.
Removing best-before dates might mean relying on other methods to keep food fresh. Those methods would slow the autolytic process – degradation or ripening of the product and/or inactivating the spoilage microbes.
Those technologies include Clean Flow, high-pressure processing, using intelligent packaging to extend shelf life, adding labels that report the spoilage status of a product, and developing products with GMO technology to slow the ripening process.
But these technologies have historically not been favoured by either retailers or consumers, he says.
Warriner recently discussed best-before dates and food waste with GuelphToday and on AM900 CHML‘s Good Morning Hamilton with Rick Zamperin. He is available for interviews.
Dr. Keith Warriner