Consumers don’t understand what best before dates really mean. And in my experience, some brand owners don’t make the connection between best before dates and protecting consumer trust in their brand. So, this is my attempt to clear up the confusion.
Are best before dates required on all food products?
I am amazed that Canadian food regulations do not require best before dates (or storage information) on pre-packaged foods with a shelf life greater than 90 days. As always, there are exceptions, such as foods in MAP (modified atmosphere packaging) and other products requiring “expiration dates”. When packaged foods don’t have best before dates how can consumers judge product freshness?
What does the best before date really mean?
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) “Best before dates do not guarantee product safety. However, they do give you information about the freshness and potential shelf-life of the unopened foods you are buying.”
What does shelf life mean?
CFIA defines shelf life (durable life) as “the anticipated amount of time that an unopened food product, when stored under appropriate conditions, will retain its freshness, taste, nutritional value, or any other qualities claimed by the manufacturer.”
How is shelf life regulated?
There are no Canadian government regulations for determining shelf life. The onus is on manufacturers to determine product shelf life and decide what methods to use.
Best before dates present a challenge for retailers, distributors and manufacturers. Retailers demand longer shelf life for logistical reasons. Consumers on the other hand, are demanding clean ingredient lists with no preservatives. That puts manufacturers between a rock and a hard place. They may be tempted to lengthen shelf life to maximize sell-through and minimize out-of-code product write-offs, but that can backfire.
How to Protect your Brand
In early 2014 I purchased some frozen fruit (brand to remain nameless). When it’s on sale I stock up, also known as pantry loading, as many consumers do. Who knows when I’ll actually eat it. The best before date was January 2016 so, I can eat it next year. Now let’s be realistic; the freezer is not kind to foods stored for long periods of time. Does the manufacturer seriously expect the flavour, texture and appearance to be acceptable after 21 months? If I consume the product 18 months into the shelf life and am disappointed in the quality, I will blame the brand and hesitate to buy it again.
Shelf life is not an arbitrary number. It is influenced by many factors that are revealed through a shelf life study. With respect to deciding on product shelf life, it’s best to err on the safe side, to ensure the product remains within specifications, otherwise consumers may not have the optimal brand experience and the repurchase rate will be compromised.
Letting consumers know how best to store the product is not only for safety reasons, it also helps to protect product integrity. If the product is adversely affected by heat, cold or light, the label should include storage instructions.
In summary, it is in the best interests of your brand to:
- use scientific methods to determine product shelf life;
- resist the temptation to use the “best case scenario”;
- prominently display the best before date, ensuring it is legible;
- include storage instructions to maintain product integrity.
Doing so will help to maintain your customer’s trust in your brand.
To learn more about the factors affecting shelf life, check out the New Zealand Food Safety Authority’s Guide to Calculating the Shelf Life of Foods http://www.foodsafety.govt.nz/elibrary/industry/Guide_Calculating-Contains_Background.pdf
Birgit Blain is president of Birgit Blain & Associates Inc.; food business specialists, helping brand owners break down barriers and position their brands for growth. Her experience includes 17 years in the grocery trade with Loblaw Companies and President’s Choice®. Her extensive knowledge base spans product management, account management and food retailing. Contact her at Birgit@BBandAssoc.com