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Has the use-by date gone past its prime?

Consumers need more useful information about assessing the freshness and safety of food products.

Picture this: you arrive home from work feeling a bit peckish. Sliced mango and a dollop of yoghurt should ease the cravings until dinner, you think. You open the fridge door and, horror, no yoghurt. Not the yoghurt you bought four weeks ago, nor the yoghurt you bought three weeks ago, nor the yoghurt on sale that you bought last week.

“Darling, where’s the yoghurt?” you ask.

“Past its expiry date. I threw it out to keep us safe.”

Was the yoghurt off?

Did it have mould? Nope. Furry bits round the edges? Not a bit. Did it smell off? Certainly not. Did it taste off? Absolutely not. Was it actually off?

All available evidence indicated a product that was perfectly safe to eat. Yet the “use-by” date stated that this product was past its prime, bad, unsafe; dangerous to eat. Somehow the product, natural yoghurt, had magically transformed from safe yesterday to off today in response to the warning date stamped on the side of the pack.

But was it, actually, off? Would a close look, a cautious sniff and a careful taste have proven that it was safe to eat?

You might assume that use-by dates have played an important role in protecting the community from food borne pathogens. After all, this simple date stamped on the packaging provides consumers with a clear directive to devour or discard the item. Just in case you were in doubt, the messages from government or quasi-government authorities is loud and clear; beyond the use-by, don’t chance it.

In fact, the Victorian Government urges you not to eat anything past its use-by, “even if it looks and smells okay”. The New South Wales Government uses the fear factor to put you off by explaining that bacteria have been multiplying to such an extent that overnight the food has become unsafe to eat.

In a poetic turn, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand provide a natty video and the catchy phrase, “if in doubt, throw it out”. It’s a handy chant to dull the thud as the food is lobbed into the kitchen bin.

Indeed, according to the recent Labelling Logic report, Australia sees 5.4 million cases of food-borne illnesses each year, costing us annually around $1.2 billion. Yet importantly, the report also suggests that “use-by” and “best-before” information is not well understood by the public despite initiatives to educate and inform.

Though use-by dates have played a role in protecting us from food-borne pathogens, it is crucial to recognise that they also contribute to a range of problems. Use-by dates are:

  • economically wasteful – costing the community billions of dollars in food waste
  • environmentally unsound – increasing the ecological footprint of our food
  • dangerous – taking away our need or desire to understand food spoilage and storage.

In the UK, the concern over the estimated £12 billion worth of food discarded every year – much of it edible – prompted the former Environment Minister, Mr Hilary Benn, to make the claim that the use-by date was nothing more than a stock control measure for the retailer. Indeed, earlier this year, the UK Government scrapped the “sell-by” date.

In the US, questions about the authority of the use-by date and the growing need to reduce waste have prompted the start of a most useful website, Shelf Life Advice. Ethel, the Shelf Life Guru, provides advice to “help you keep the food in your kitchen safe … and to help you cut food bills by avoiding waste …”.

The website also provides a link to a USDA fact sheet on Food Labelling, which says that the use-by date merely indicates when a food is at its “peak quality” and that it is not a safety date at all.

The UK Government has abandoned sell-by dates. Flickr/Esther17

But back in Australia; let’s look at the dangers of date stamping with a familiar story.

One warm day in summer, Patrick heads off to do the shopping. Patrick and Jo are hosting an afternoon party for a few friends the next day, so supplies are needed.

Supermarket first – that gets the tedious shopping out of the way. A gallop up and down the aisles takes 20 minutes plus a further five minutes at the checkout. During that time, Patrick’s trolley’s been host to four pre-packaged trays of chicken thighs and chicken breasts.

Offloading the groceries into the boot of the car, cool in the undercover car park, Patrick heads to the bottle shop (15 minutes), the newsagent (five minutes), the fruit and veggie shop (15 minutes) then grabs a quick cappuccino at the deli (15 minutes), where he also picks up cold meats and cheeses for the party.

By the time Patrick gets home (30 minutes – bad traffic) the chicken pieces have been out of the fridge for nearly two hours, the cold meat and cheese considerably less. He dumps the groceries on the kitchen counter and asks his son to pack away the food. Forty-five minutes later, Jason (age 16) emerges from his room and reluctantly packs the food in the fridge.

The next day, Jo rushes to the fish markets for prawns – best buy fresh – while Patrick prepares the marinated chicken. One tray of thighs is a bit whiffy, he thinks. The use-by is late next week so they must be okay. He washes them thoroughly and steeps the chicken strips in garlic, ginger, chilli, soy and mirin. That afternoon, Patrick puts the covered bowl of marinated chicken beside the barbecue while he gets the grill hot, about an hour.

The party was fun, the company good but that night, most of the guests are horribly ill.

So what’s happened? The problem here is the reliance we all place on the authority of the use-by date, a growing lack of understanding about food spoilage, and a dwindling belief in our own commonsense. Ethel of Shelf Life Advice could provide some good advice, as could When Food Goes Bad, which does a great job explaining how temperature and time work together in a dastardly conspiracy to turn food off.

But the underlying message is this – the use-by date has passed its prime.

So what is the solution? Do we return to the days when we as consumers must make all the decisions about whether or not something should be eaten? Do we scrap the use-by date and allow retailers to dupe us with pre-packaged foods that are just a bit older than they should be? Or do we modify the use-by date system in a way that can help us assess the freshness and eatability of our food?

Our suggestion? We need to provide a more informative label alongside the use-by date that can reinstate our own wisdom for assessing freshness. Instead of a simple magical date, we need to let consumers know when a product is at its peak, for how long it may be safe to eat, and, crucially, how to assess when it’s gone bad.

Take eggs, for example, a beautifully packaged product that can last weeks beyond stated use-by dates. Alongside a “peak-quality” date, a colour-coded “use your judgement” bar could indicate some simple tests to gauge freshness.

Were the eggs kept in the fridge? (Good.) Do the eggs bob around on the surface of a bowl of water (bad) or sink to the bottom (good)? Or do the eggs pong like, well, like rotten eggs when cracked into a bowl? (Really bad.)

If the product is cheese or hard fruits and veggies, Choice provides a 1cm rule. This wonderful rule reduces waste by advising consumers to cut visible mould off a wedge of cheese or slightly old rockmelon. Then, for safety, cut a further 1cm off to protect you from the growing things that you can’t see. Of course you should do a taste test, too.

We need to learn again the signs that demonstrate food health and to understand safe handling and transport rules to minimise waste. We need to trust our own judgement in assessing food, and we need to be supported in this via more informative food quality labels.

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