Date codes on food packaging perform a variety of different tasks. They give the consumer a rough idea of the food’s shelf life and they also help manufacturers and retailers manage their stock control so that the oldest products are always at the front of the shelf, reducing the potential for waste. Unfortunately the date labelling system we have now is imperfect at best. The meaning of terms like “use by” and “best before” is unclear to many consumers and even some manufacturers misunderstand how date labels should be applied and how they relate to food quality and safety. The result is food waste on a colossal scale, huge additional costs all along the supply chain and possible food safety risks as a consequence of misunderstanding date labels on perishable foods.
That at least is the premise set out in a newly published scientific review by a team of food industry experts under the auspices of the Institute of Food Technologists in the USA. The review sets out a catalogue of deficiencies inherent in current date labelling practices and calls for change to end the confusion and the variation in labelling conventions in different countries. The authors want to see much more consistent date marking and a clear distinction between food safety and food quality and call on regulatory bodies to focus more resources on food safety labelling issues. They also suggest technological solutions in the form of devices like time and temperature indicators that can give useful information about food safety and the true shelf life of products.
The review presents sound arguments in favour of change to the current system, with the unacceptable amount of food waste being at the heart of its case. Estimates in the USA suggest that a third of all the food that should be available to the consumer is thrown away, at least in part because it is “out of date”, even though it may be perfectly safe to eat. This obviously can’t go on indefinitely and the pressure for change is strong, but this review is written very much from the industry perspective rather than that of the consumer. Currently, food manufacturers and retailers have to spend a lot of money ensuring that products are properly date labelled and much of the cost of wastage falls on them. They would like a system that allowed them to be a little less rigid on date labelling so that shelf life could take into account variations in time and temperature through the supply chain, shifting the focus from quality to safety. But this also relies in part on educating the consumer to know more about safe storage and handling of food and raising awareness of what date labelling actually means.
While it is certainly the case that a simple “use by” date alone cannot indicate whether a food is safe to eat or not in the absence of information of how it has been stored and handled, I fear that the proposals in the review may be too complex for consumers to accept. People respond differently to date labels – some ignore them completely while others religiously throw out anything that is “out of date” – and educating everyone to respond appropriately looks like a tall order. From a food safety point of view a simpler solution might just be to make the wording on date labels a bit more attention grabbing. I have always thought that “safe until” might be a good alternative to “use by”, but I can’t see that getting much support from industry.