Majority of Canadians against eliminating 'best before' dates on food packaging, study says

·4 min read
Majority of Canadians against eliminating 'best before' dates on food packaging, study says

Would you toss a container of yogurt after its "best before" date passes? Or are you the type to keep eating until the smell, texture and taste tell you to stop?

The majority of Canadians are against eliminating "best before" dates on food packaging in a push to reduce food waste, according to a joint report from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University and the Angus Reid Institute, released Thursday.

Thirty per cent of Canadians say that they oppose doing so, and even more — 32 per cent — say they strongly oppose it. Though 27 per cent said they would strongly support or support eliminating those date labels.

"You can use milk a few days after the best before date; it's not tragic," Cindy Hutchinson told CBC News as she was leaving a farmer's market in Winnipeg.

For another market-goer, named Shirley, it was a decisive no: "I like fresh stuff," she said.

WATCH | Should best-before dates be shelved?

Consumers are influenced by date labelling, the report says, noting that 25 per cent of the population relies on "best before" dates as an indicator of food safety.

But that may very well contribute to food waste, of which Canada already produces a lot.

Excluding households, the Canadian food industry wastes an avoidable 8.79 million tonnes of potentially edible food every year, according to a 2022 report by Value Chain Management International (VCMI), a food waste management firm in Oakville, Ont.

Martin Gooch, CEO of VCMI, said while he's not surprised Canadians are against removing "best before" labels, it contributes to the problem of food loss and waste in Canada, both at the retail level among consumers and throughout the supply chain.

"We've become used to it as a population," he said. "We've become used to, when we pick up a product in a store or from a cupboard, one of the first things we often do is look at the date.

"Dates drive behaviour … if they're on a food package."

How often, if ever, do you look at 'best before' dates before buying each of the following products?

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 labelling, including making best-before dates clearer and easier to read."

There is an important distinction between safety and quality when it comes to date labelling, said Maria Corradini, an associate professor of food science and the Arrell Chair in Food Quality at the University of Guelph.

"When you're talking about quality, safety is one of the components of quality. You cannot say that it's a high-quality product if it is not safe," she said. "But you can have a safe product that doesn't have good quality."

Most dates about quality, freshness

Only a handful of foods have actual expiry dates that determine whether they are safe to consume; among them are baby formula and liquid diet products.

While "best before" dates are about quality, Gooch notes that "use by" dates have a connection to food safety, "particularly if they are nutritional supplements for people who are immunocompromised."

Otherwise, most food products are labelled with "best before," "sell by" or "packaged on" dates that indicate the quality and freshness of the provisions. The further from these dates, the lower quality the food becomes — especially in the case of perishables, like produce and dairy.

But the dates don't indicate that a product is hazardous or unsafe, according to Corradini.

"Eliminating completely any kind of dating is going to devoid the consumer from a source of information," she said.

"I think that some dating should be in the product, or some kind of cue for the consumer has to be incorporated in lieu of the static benchmarks that we currently have."

Do you support or oppose eliminating 'best before' dates on food packaging to reduce food waste?

Several European grocers — Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons and, most recently, Asda — have been experimenting with new anti-food-waste initiatives, foregoing "best before" and "sell by" labelling on some of their products. The initiative targets commonly wasted items like milk, apples and potatoes.

"I'm not quite sure that that kind of policy is successful," Corradini said.

Dynamic, sensory-focused labels — which tell a consumer when a product has gone bad by describing taste or smell — will give a more accurate picture of whether a food has gone bad or not, she said.

Reverting to Julian dating, where a product is stamped with the date it was manufactured or packaged, could be an effective solution to food waste, according to Gooch.

"That enables manufacturers, retailers, businesses along the chain to manage inventory, float product through — first in, first out — using products that need to be used, selling products that need to be sold."

But that doesn't drive consumer behaviour, he said. In fact, some parts of the food industry, and other industries which use similar date labelling, consciously profit from "best before" dates.

"One of the things we need to do is better communicate what 'best before' dates mean."