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the manufacturer’s put some kind of self-destruct mechanism in the packaging which spoils the food the day after it’s out of date?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.