Canadians’ misunderstanding of best before dates could be contributing to excess food waste and, in turn, food insecurity, experts say as a government committee urges Ottawa to examine the issue.
A report on grocery affordability from a House of Commons committee on agriculture and agri-food includes arguments that Canada do away with best before dates due to the widespread misconception that they indicate whether a product is safe to consume.
Experts say all they indicate is when a product is past its peak freshness.
“There’s a lot of confusion around what food labels mean,” Kate Parizeau, a professor at the University of Guelph who studies food waste, said Tuesday.
“A lot of people think that best before dates are expiry dates, when there are actually very few products in Canada that have a proper expiry date.”
Generally, the only foods with an expiry date are those that have a specific nutritional requirement that could degrade over time, such as baby formula. Best before dates, on the other hand, are required on foods that are expected to go bad within 90 days.
Food manufacturers and processors tend to slap them on all sorts of products, though, Parizeau noted, and they are of limited utility.
“I think many people have this idea that before dates are determined by scientists in a lab measuring how many days until a product goes bad,” she said.
“That’s not how it works. It’s something that the government tells manufacturers that they themselves have to figure out in-house, so it’s a bit of a black box.”
Parizeau encouraged consumers to learn more about food safety so they can determine for themselves whether groceries are spoiled.
“We’re so disconnected from our food sources. We don’t know when the product was picked. We don’t know how long it’s supposed to stay good,” she said.
“So if somebody puts peppers into cellophane and puts a sticker on them, we’re like, ‘OK, this is meaningful. I can trust whatever is put on the sticker.’ In part, because we don’t understand how that decision came about either.”
Lori Nikkel, the CEO of Second Harvest Canada, is quoted in the government report saying that best before dates encourage people to throw out “perfectly good food” when many go hungry because of rising costs.
“Eliminating best-before dates would prevent safe, consumable food from being thrown out and save Canadians money on their grocery bills,” she said in the report released last month, which recommends the government investigate “how the elimination of ‘best-before’ dates on foods would impact Canadians.”
Michael von Massow, an expert in food labeling who also teaches at the University of Guelph, said he’s in favour of doing away with the labels.
“Because they are so misinterpreted, I think there’s some real value in getting rid of them,” he said.
Von Massow said the extent to which food waste drives up cost is not clear, though it stands to reason that it plays some role by reducing the supply and increasing demand for groceries.
“If we were throwing out less stuff, we would save money in our households, even if prices didn’t change,” von Massow said.
“So I think there’s an argument that prices could change if we threw less of some products out. But even if it didn’t change, if we threw less stuff out, our grocery budget would go down.”
The suggestion that the government study the potential effects of removing best before dates is one of 13 in the report.