For people who care about their food

Time to bin the “Best before” date?

Food waste is something of a hobby-horse of mine – I always feel a pang of guilt when I’m chucking away something I’ve bought, fully intended to do something with and then left languishing at the back of the fridge for just that bit too long. But I can console myself with the knowledge that I’m by no means the worst offender.

A lot of people in the UK chuck out perfectly good food, just because it’s past its “Best before” date.

Even with the progresses that food science and packaging have made in the last 200 or so years since canning was invented, it’s still not possible to judge precisely how long a packaged food will take to degrade while in storage, and certainly not to the exact day. All the more so because the food may well keep for years in its packaging, assuming it’s stored properly and not bashed about or otherwise physically maltreated. So the date given is often the end of a calendar month (“BBE: MM/YY”) rather than some spuriously accurate date. And the manufacturers build in a margin of safety – the “Best before” date is a pledge that the food will be OK at least up to that date.

Yet people still throw away date-expired tins and packets. Do they think that the manufacturer’s put some kind of self-destruct mechanism in the packaging which spoils the food the day after it’s out of date?

Or are they confusing BBE with the “Use by:” date found on much more perishable chilled foods like meat, fish or dairy products? The point is that the “Use by” date is a food safety measure. Refrigeration doesn’t stop bacteria from multiplying altogether, it just slows down their activity – so these foods can make you ill if they’re left in the fridge for too long. The “Best before” date is primarily a food quality measure, telling you that the food will taste best when eaten before the date – not that it’ll make you ill after it.

Then again, perhaps it’s the words used on the packaging. “Best before” implies that the food’s “past its best” afterwards. The German expression is Mindestens haltbar bis – “Will keep at least until…” – which is far more reassuring.

I was not altogether surprised to hear that there are some entrepreneurial spirits out there who make a living out of selling food past its BBE date. Good luck to them, I say. Sure, I’d far rather use stuff that’s within its date – but if I do find a tin lurking at the back of a shelf, I’m certainly not going to chuck it just because it’s a few weeks over.

According to The Guardian, back in June 2009 Environment Secretary Hilary Benn suggested ignoring “Best before” dates. He also suggested scrapping “Sell by” dates – which are stock control dates for the shops’ information only, but which consumers often mistake for “Use by” dates. Both these suggestions sound like good ideas to me.

2 Responses to “Time to bin the “Best before” date?”

  1. Buddyboy

    I’m with you on this one, ND. I hate throwing away good food and find best before dates err heavily on the side of caution. Your mention of finding old tins of food on the back shelf brings to mind something that was reported in Britain circa 1960 on the television. They had an old can of Christmas pudding dating back to the first world war, food that was actually sent to the troops in the trenches but later returned unused and kept by someone. They opened it and ate it some fifty years after it was made. The contents were fine, as good as when it was made seemingly.

    Now, if an old tin like that can survive for that long, I have great faith in modern methods of preserving food, especially tins which are now also plastic coated inside. I for one trust my nose, my eyes and common sense when deciding if food is at the “toss it out” stage. My wife, on the other hand, is far more cautious and disposes of old foods far more readily. She tends to do it when I am not around as she knows I’ll object. I can’t recall the last time I reacted negatively to food past its prime.

    Speaking of tins, it was they that were responsible for the loss of the Shackleton expedition to Canada to find the northwest passage in the mid-nineteenth century. Back then tins were very new, with their seams sealed by lead solder. The crew, dependent of the tins of food over a long period, succumbed to lead poisoning and all perished in our Canadian wilderness. We’ve come a long way with food preservation since then.

  2. Mr Not Delia

    Great posting, Buddyboy! 😀

    I remember hearing about that tin of Christmas pud. Evidently it was an example that struck a chord in the popular consciousness – I certainly wasn’t around in 1960 😉

    Fascinating – if ironic and tragic – to hear that the NW Passage expedition died because of tins. Something I’d never heard about. (Franklin, though, rather than Shackleton – S was active half a century later.)

    On a personal note, we (or rather I) opened a tin of tomato purée earlier today. Canned in April 2007 and expiry date of April 2009. Nothing wrong with it at all, except that ND thought it looked a little darker than usual.

    (When I say there was nothing wrong with it, I was talking about the contents. The tin had an unconventionally tall lip, so our usual opener couldn’t cut through the wall of the tin in the usual way – I ended up having to resort to the Swiss Army knife. 🙄 )

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