Best before dates have long been a talked about subject around the dinner table with some consumers for and others against the food labelling. Australia and New Zealand share a joint food regulation system that is made up of different laws, policies and standards that govern food for consumers.
Best before dates have long been a hot topic with some consumers interpreting them as being the same as a use-by-dates. This common misconception leads to an increase in food waste as people throw away perfectly edible food. Another portion of the public believes that the dates are unnecessary as they are an added cost for food producers and stipulate when the product is at its best which can be open to interpretation.

The Laws That Govern:

FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) is an independent scientific body that develops and sets the food standards which then become part of the law. New Zealand employs two types of standard labelling on its food. These are best-before-dates and use-by-dates. “Most foods have a best-before-date. You can still eat foods for a period after the best-before-date as they are still safe but they may have lost some quality. Foods that have a best-before-date can legally be sold after that date provided the food is fit for human consumption,” explained FSANZ spokesperson Lorraine Haase.

“Best-before-dates provide good information to consumers and also confidence to manufacturers that their products can be presented and judged appropriately. They tell a consumer that before a certain date the product will be in guaranteed peak condition,” said Katherine Rich from the Food and Grocery Council.

Food Waste:

New Zealander’s throw away roughly two billion dollars’ worth of food every year which amounts to around 122,547 tonnes of waste. According to the Ministry of Primary Industries, 60 percent of the food that ends up in landfill is still edible. Best-before-dates are often mistaken for use-by-dates a perception which leads to a dramatic increase in food waste as consumers throw away this perfectly edible food.

Organisation Love Food Hate Waste research shows that 10 percent of the population misunderstand what a best-before-date means. “Best before dates have a role to play on items with a very short shelf life, for example, bread as it can go stale and mouldy in humid weather far faster than people might anticipate and items like yoghurts with a short shelf life where you need to open the container to see the product inside. Equally best-before-dates on items such as rice, pasta and other products which are very shelf stable are probably unnecessary,” said Love Food Hate Waste spokesperson Jenny Marshall.

“It is up to the consumers to decide if they want to throw away or keep eating products after its best-before-date. “Best-before-dates can impact on food waste if someone has the mistaken idea that they need to throw food away immediately if it’s close to or just past its best-before-date. There is no need to do this,” said Rich.

A Future Without best-before-dates:

Overseas supermarkets have already begun to oust best-before-dates. Major UK supermarket chain Tesco announced earlier this month that they would be scrapping 116 unnecessary best-before-dates from some of its fruit and vegetable products. The scrapping of the dates was in response to a survey the retailer conducted that revealed that 69 percent of its shoppers thought removing the dates was a good idea.

This month also saw French retailer Carrefour partner with industry start-up Too Good to Go to ask for a petition calling on retailers to revise the semantics behind best-before-dates. The company has taken to social media to ask shoppers what wording they would prefer to see on the labels. Carrefour scrapped the best-before-dates from 100 products in 2014 as well as extended the use-by-dates on 400 of its fresh and grocery products.

When asked if a future exists without best-before-dates Love Food Hate Waste responded stating that there will always be a need for short-lived products such as bread where a best before label helps to reduce food waste. Love Food Hate Waste believes that information needs to be communicated more meaningfully to the consumer. “Packaging manufacturers are looking at smart labelling where the colour changes as the food begins to go off which would give consumers more warning and a better indication,” explained Marshall

Educating consumers about the difference between best-before and use-by-dates is possible a solution. “Some countries have chosen to scrap best-before-dates as politicians have judged there was too much confusion between best-before and use-by dates. Years ago, the NZ Food Safety Authority made public information available for consumers that communicated the difference, but I haven’t seen anything for many years. Educating people on the difference would remind people that they don’t have to throw food away because it’s just past its best-before-date. It is definitely a waste if you are throwing away good food that is nutritious and tasty,” added Rich.