Does the ‘best before’ date in food cause unnecessary waste?

According to a Reuters report it just may; so much so that the European Union may be mulling scrapping the warning altogether.

A use by date is applied if there is a health risk in eating food after that date, whereas a best before date is more about quality – when it expires it does not necessarily mean food is harmful, but it may lose flavor and texture.


The report highlighted that “between 30 percent and 50 percent of the food which gets to supermarket shelves is wasted – often because of poor understanding of best before and use by dates.”

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A directive issued by the EU in 1996 mandates the use of use-by (UB) labels in perishable foods.

Each manufacturer is responsible for providing UB and BB dates based on their own studies – observing time taken for food to grow bacteria – backed with published data on similar foods.

Safe thresholds for bacteria before they reach levels that cause poisoning, are set by the European Food Safety Agency.

The length of UB dates are not set by law, however Trading Standards carries out spot checks.

‘Audits shows up anomalies but we rely on manufacturers to be honest,’ a Trading Standards spokesman said.

The law does not state length of use-by dates. However, firms can be fined up to £5,000 for a ‘food labelling offence’.

Retail stores can throw away large quantities of food. Usually, this consists of items that have reached their either their best before, sell-by or use-by dates. Food that passed the best before, and sell-by date, and even some food that passed the use-by date is still edible at the time of disposal, but stores have widely varying policies to handle the excess food. Some stores put effort into preventing access to poor or homeless people, while others work with charitable organizations to distribute food. Retailers also contribute to waste as a result of their contractual arrangements with suppliers. Failure to supply agreed quantities renders farmers or processors liable to have their contracts cancelled. As a consequence, they plan to produce more than actually required to meet the contract, to have a margin of error. Surplus production is often simply disposed.

A 2011 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) on behalf of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Global Food Losses and Food Waste estimated the total of global food loss and waste to around one third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption, amounting to about 1.3 billion tons per year. Industrialized and developing countries differ substantially. In the latter, more than 40% of losses occur at the postharvest and processing stages, while in the former, more than 40% of losses occur at the retail and consumer levels. The total food waste by consumers in industrialized countries (222 million tons) is almost equal to the entire food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).

[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the article “Food waste” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site.]

2 Replies to “Does the ‘best before’ date in food cause unnecessary waste?”

  1. True, food’s “best by” or “use before” dates are never really the exact date when the food itself becomes inedible. I’ve personally consumed food months after their “use by” date (instant noodles, jerky, the occasional tinned meat), and have yet to suffer from food poisoning as a result.

    I don’t blame shops choosing to dispose of unsold food versus giving them away to charity. If the expiring food really turned out to be spoiled, they could get hit with legal/bad PR problems. And even if the expiring food’s sell by date isn’t the actual time the food expires, someone is going to inevitably rip the company in the press for donating almost expired food to those in need.

  2. In my area, when the item is about 3-6 months from its UB or BB date, the store would usually mark down the price by at least 50% or ‘buy 1, free 1’ (to dispose the item faster).

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