Would you throw away a container of yogurt after its expiration date has passed? Or are you the type to keep eating until the smell, texture, and taste tell you to stop?
Majority of Canadians oppose eliminating best before dates on food packaging in an effort to reduce food waste, according to a joint report by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analysis Laboratory and the Angus Reid Institute, released Thursday.
Thirty percent of Canadians say they oppose it, and even more — 32% — say they strongly oppose it. Although 27% said they would strongly support or support the removal of these date labels.
“You can use milk a few days past the expiration date; it’s not tragic,” Cindy Hutchinson told CBC News as she left a farmer’s market in Winnipeg.
For another market regular, named Shirley, it was a definite no-no: “I like fresh produce,” she said.
Consumers are influenced by date labeling, the report says, noting that 25% of the population rely on “best before” dates as an indicator of food safety.
But it could very well contribute to food waste, of which Canada already produces a lot.
Excluding households, Canada’s food industry wastes 8.79 million tonnes of potentially edible food each year, according to a 2022 report from Value Chain Management International (VCMI), an Oakville food waste management company, in Ontario.
Martin Gooch, CEO of VCMI, said that while he’s not surprised that Canadians oppose the removal of “best before” labels, it contributes to the problem of food loss and waste in Canada, both both at the consumer retail level and throughout the supply chain.
“We got used to it as a population,” he said. “We got used to it, when we pick up a product in a store or in a closet, one of the first things we often do is look at the date.
“Appointments drive behavior…if they’re on food packaging.”
In an email, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency told CBC News that in response to consumer needs and consultations, it has “proposed changes to various aspects of food labeling, including making clearer and easier to read expiry dates”.
There’s an important distinction between safety and quality when it comes to date labeling, said Maria Corradini, associate professor of food science and Arrell Chair in Food Quality at the University of Guelph.
“When you talk about quality, safety is one of the components of quality. You can’t say it’s a high quality product if it’s not safe,” she said. “But you can have a safe product that is not of good quality.”
Most dates on quality, freshness
Only a handful of foods have actual expiration dates that determine whether they are safe to eat; among them are infant formula and liquid diet products.
While expiration dates are about quality, Gooch notes that expiration dates have to do with food safety, “particularly when it comes to nutritional supplements for immunocompromised people.”
Otherwise, most food items are labeled with “best before”, “sell by” or “packed on” dates that indicate the quality and freshness of supplies. The further these dates are, the more the quality of the food decreases, especially in the case of perishable goods, such as produce and dairy products.
But dates do not indicate that a product is unsafe or dangerous, according to Corradini.
“To completely eliminate any type of dating is going to deprive the consumer of a source of information,” she said.
“I think some dating should be in the product, or some sort of consumer cue should be incorporated instead of the static cues that we have now.”
Several European grocers – Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons and, more recently, Asda — have experimented with new anti-food waste initiatives, waiving “best before” and “sold before” labeling on some of their products. The initiative targets commonly wasted items like milk, apples and potatoes.
“I’m not entirely sure that this type of policy will succeed,” Corradini said.
Dynamic, sensory labels — which tell the consumer when a product has gone bad by describing taste or smell — will give a more accurate picture of whether or not a food has gone bad, she said.
Going back to Julian dating, where a product is stamped with the date it was made or packaged, could be an effective solution to food waste, according to Gooch.
“It allows manufacturers, retailers and companies along the chain to manage inventory, move products – first in, first out – using products that need to be used, selling products that need to be sold.”
But that doesn’t determine consumer behavior, he said. In fact, some parts of the food industry and other industries that use similar date labeling are consciously taking advantage of “best before” dates.
“One of the things we need to do is better communicate what the expiry dates mean.”