No food legislation on the best before date

Tiphaine Paucot-Landelle

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The European Union and the European governments have nothing to say about the attribution of the food best before date, which is decided by the producers themselves. Huge amount of food is wasted.

Image Credit: Todd Mecklem / flickr
Image Credit: Todd Mecklem / flickr

According to the European Union regulation (Regulation EC No. 178/2002), it is the responsibility of the producers to set the date of minimum durability. If some non-governmental organisations control that no food with an expired date is on the shelves, nobody check if the date indicated on the product is well attributed.

Vanessa Cooling, Information Assistant of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) explains that, “when determining the shelf life of their products, the food business operator has to take into account a number of factors such as the characteristics of the food, packaging materials, storage conditions etc. and based on this, they make a decision on the correct ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date”. Although the European Union recommends running some laboratory tests, there is not any obligation to do so.

Raymond O’Hara produces cold fresh organic juices and smoothies in Dublin. He has made research in America, which is an older market in the field. Essentially, he found that all similar businesses say the same thing. Juices all last for 72 hours. It is eatable after this period but he agrees that it is not as good. Raymond O’Hara does plan on getting expiry date testing on the juices but as he uses the recommended dates from the American juices producers, he confirms that it is not mandatory: “I’d like to do the test, I am open to it, just to know what is the exact expiry date, I just haven’t done it yet”.

A marketing strategy?

The French Consumers Association, UFC-Que Choisir made some tests on different food items. They found that every labelled dates were reliable as no product at the time of the indicated expiry date has changed. The UFC-Que Choisir food representative, Olivier Andrault confirms that these dates are reliable. The producers have no interest to sell gone off food.

Image Credit: bertholf / flickr
Image Credit: bertholf / flickr

Having spoken to a range of people, we found that when they go shopping, most consumers admit not taking care of the expiry dates. However, they eat gone off foods first and do not mind eating outdated ones. They happen to eat food a month after its limited date. The non-rupture of the cold chain is more important than the date in itself.

UFC-Que Choisir food representative makes the difference between the appearance and the healthy quality of the product. According to the specialist, a fresh food item such as fish, which is highly perishable, is smelly long before it is dangerous for the health. “It is the consumer’s responsibility to decide whether he wants to eat something which quality is deteriorated but it is definitely not dangerous”.

Having no legislation about the attribution of the food labelling date might be shocking for most people but at least it does not seem to be dangerous for the consumers.

1.3 billion tons of food wasted per year

Well, in its tests on dairy items, UFC-Que Choisir has found that even after three weeks pass the date, the bacteriological quality of the products was perfect. Making the test at home is genuinely simple. Indeed, most of the yogurts last more than two weeks after its indicated date. “It means that we are far from the precautionary margin of one week”, says Olivier Andrault. “For us, the producer intentionally shortens the product lifespan and we understand this as a way to speed up the sales”. The problem is that people trust the expiry date. When they see that the product has expired, they throw it away and buy a new one, which stimulates overconsumption and increases producer’s benefits.

Producer Raymond O’Hara does not agree with this. For him it is easier to make money out of a longer shelf life and he would love to have a longer one for his products. However he admits that not everybody agrees with him: “I am sure that [kind of behaviour] goes on but it is not something I was told though”.

Image Credit: Katherine / flickr
Image Credit: Katherine / flickr

Many organisations ask governments to regulate the way of mentioning the expiry date. Most of the consumers do not distinguish the difference between the ‘Use by’ and ‘Best before’ date, which is the main factor of food waste. They see the date but do not pay attention to the ‘Best before’ mention and thus, think the product is not good anymore while it still is. They get rid of it immediately. 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away every year in the world, 41, 200 kilos every seconds. It costs about €750 billion. Europe is far from being a role model in that respect. Europeans throw 89 million tons of food away every year. An average of 179 kilos per person are wasted every year.

More regulations

There is no way to prove that the ‘best before’ mention is responsible for this food wastage, however, writing more explicitly on the item that food products are still eatable if this mention is indicated might help. Backed up by Austria, Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg, ministers from Netherlands and Sweden have written to the European Commission. They asked to prefer no mention rather than a best-before warning on product that do not represent a biological risk for the consumers. For now, nothing has been decided yet, but national initiatives are multiplying in Europe. French National Assembly is also trying to find a way to minimise food wastage.

Why then, is there no legislation on the attribution of the expiry date? It would be wiser that Healthcare organisations take care of this process, as they know more about the risk. UFC-Que Choisir food representative, Olivier Andrault agrees. It could be a regulatory doctrine under the responsibility of food organisations. “They could give lists or guiding policies on the attribution of the expiry dates for the perishable food”.

Consumers have to do responsible shopping and buy only what they need. Producers could also be more trustworthy in the process of giving an expiry date. But it is easy to blame food producers for taking money from the lack of legislation. Maybe instead of trying to minimize the consequences of the date attribution process, governments, and not only the European Union, should regulate its origins: who and how food expiry dates are chosen.


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Tiphaine Paucot-Landelle