The dating game
Best before dates
Current federal labelling rules under the FDR require certain consumer prepackaged foods to include a best before date or if packaged at retail, a packaged-on date along with a durable life unless the durable life is on signage next to the food. Yeast products have the option of using a “use by” dates. Foods for special dietary use like nutritional supplements and infant formula are required to include an expiration date on their label. A “durable life” refers to the “date when it is stored under conditions appropriate to that product, will retain, without any appreciable deterioration, its normal wholesomeness, palatability, nutritional value and any other qualities claimed for it by the manufacturer.” In contrast, an “expiration date” refers to a date “after which the manufacturer does not recommend that it be consumed, and up to which it maintains its microbiological and physical stability and the nutrient content declared on the label.” A durable life is a measure of the qualitative life of food, not its safety.
Consumers have long struggled with appreciating best before dates. Many are afraid to consume foods after this date. This has led to mounting concerns over food waste and its impact on the environment as well as cost. In the U.S., 40 per cent of food goes uneaten. Eighty per cent of Americans prematurely throw out food that contributes to the $200 billion of food waste each year. That equates to US$1,500 per family a year. In terms of the environment, food waste is the largest component of solid waste. In the U.S., 21 per cent of water used is consumed by food waste. Globally, food waste is the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S. On a social scale, one out of every eight Americans is not food secure. Getting a chunk of that back is like a big tax cut, and a bonus for the environment. So, what is the U.S. doing? As odd as it may sound, the U.S. does not have regulations that govern date labelling, other than in the case of infant formula. Many foods are date marked but with varying formats, which only makes matters more confusing for U.S. consumers. The FDA has been encouraging uniformity on labelling. In July, a bill was introduced in Congress that would, if signed into law, be known as the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019. That aims to provide uniformity on labelling. A good question is whether labelling will be a salvation or an imperilment. Canada has had durable life labelling for about 45 years. What has it really achieved? Perhaps in the 1970s consumers had a closer relationship with food and were able to make sense of this information. Today, where consumers are obsessed with the food fear factor, will they ever get over that foods can be consumed after its durable life? It is easy to think that not proving a durable life may have better results, but we do need these as a benchmark.
Canada has proposed a new definition of a “best before date,” defined as “date up to and including which an unopened and properly stored prepackaged product will remain marketable, without any appreciable deterioration, and will retain any qualities for which representations, express or implied, have been made.” Yup, that clarifies things! The proposed rules would require either an expiration date or a best before date unless the food is exempt in the appropriately titled document, Prepackaged Products which do not Require a Best Before Date. Foods like chewing gum, standardized alcoholic beverages or those with at least 10 per cent alcohol, bakers’ or pastry-cooks’ wares, which are normally consumed within 24 hours, and whole fresh fruits and vegetables that are packaged in a manner visible to a consumer would be excused. Under current rules the inclusion of a best before date on a non-consumer prepackaged food is voluntary. The new rules include both consumer and non-consumer prepackaged food, unless specifically exempt. Non-consumer prepackaged food would have greater flexibility in presenting the date code format in contrast to consumer-packaged food. That date code as proposed would include the year, month and date in the prescribed manner when the date is more than three months from the time the date is applied to the label. Unlike today’s date code format that requires a month to be expressed by words or by a two-letter bilingual abbreviation, the proposed rules would only require month abbreviations when a year is not included in the code.
The proposed rules would capture many more foods for date labelling. The date code format provides greater flexibility as a solely numerical code can be used. The proposed rules would also require the storage conditions, when those conditions are required to support the integrity of the food or when the validity of the expiration date or best before date depends on those conditions, to be placed on the principal display (main) panel, or grouped with the ingredient list. The storage conditions for low acid foods would have to be on the main panel as it is currently required.
If these rules are finalized as predicted, they may come into effect by the end of 2022. The usefulness of date labelling will not be realized unless some serious effort is also made to educate consumers.