Best before date and expiry date, aside from the manufacturing date are important date label information on food products. The practice of putting these essential information started a long time ago. But even if this is the case, a lot of consumers are still confused between best the before date and the expiry date; they think both of these terms mean the same.
In fact, a 2013 study revealed that 90% of Americans prematurely discard edible foods because of date labelling confusion. The European Union also experiences the same issue. And because of this, the European Commission will propose for the revision of EU rules on date marking. Doing so will prevent food waste linked to misunderstanding and/or misuse of best before date and expiry date.
According to Food and Agriculture of the United Nations (FAO), 1/3 of all foods produced globally goes to waste. That is around 1.3 billion tonnes per year! And it will not come as a surprise if a huge portion of this was a result of confusion between these labeling terms.
Well, anyway. Best before date and the expiry date, what exactly is the difference between them? It’s simple.
Best before date simply refers to food quality, while the expiry date pertains to food safety.
Let’s further discuss this. (We’ll also see how manufacturers figure these dates out).
BEST BEFORE DATE IS ABOUT FOOD QUALITY
Best before date, or best before end, is the most common term on packaged food products. Although may be confusing to some, best before date refers to the last day the product is at its best quality. After the specified date on the label, its flavor, texture, odor, freshness, and even the nutrients may start to decline or change. Commonly, food manufacturers pick the best before date well before the product is expected to spoil. Basically, foods that have a shelf life longer than 90 days do not require a best before date on the label. And therefore, it is up to the manufacturer if they want to add one.
For this reason, some suggest to completely ignore these dates on the label. And to tell you the truth, most dates on the labels are not even entirely based on science.
Proper storing of food items is the main key to preserve the quality. Most manufacturers add a storage instruction on the label for the consumer to follow. If you have food items in the pantry or kitchen cabinet that are past their best best date, it is advisable to consume them immediately once opened. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises to check and examine food for any signs of spoilage. If the foods have a noticeable change in color, consistency or texture, it is better to avoid them.
Here’s a question:
Do stores pull out products that are past their best before date?
Maybe or maybe not. And it is not illegal.
Although these products are on the decline in terms of their sensory characteristics and nutrition, this does not mean they are no longer safe to consume.
To make the most of their stock, stores normally drop prices on products that are near or past their best before date. This strategy is commonly used during the holiday season to increase sales.
Another term that guides stores is the similar term, sell-by date.
What is sell-by date?
Sell-by date applies generally to packaged and fresh foods that are commonly consumed a few days after buying. It is the recommended last day of displaying the product for sale. Similarly, items past their sell-by date may start to lose quality. And pulling out the product after the sell-by date is not a requirement by law. Hence, it is not illegal to sell items past its best before date.
In the European Union, selling or marketing products after their best before date is not prohibited, provided that the condition is safe and the appearance is not misleading.
Further reading: Food Safety At The Grocery Store
To get the freshest in stock, learning the basic stock rotation employed by grocery stores is key. Usually, store staff place new items to the back of the shelf while moving the oldest batch to the front. This practice ensures the fresh items get purchased last. But to hack the system, simply reach the item on back of the shelf.
EXPIRY DATE IS ABOUT FOOD SAFETY
While best before date refers to food quality, expiry date, on the other hand, refers to food safety. It tells the consumer the last date the food is fit for consumption. Eating food that is past its expiration has a greater risk for developing foodborne illness. While expiry dates may sound stricker, using the term varies in some countries.
In Canada, expiry dates only apply to foods that have strict compositional and nutritional specifications, which might not be met past the expiry date. These products include formulated liquid diets, formulated food as a meal replacement, nutritional supplements, foods represented for use in a very low-energy diet, and infant formula.
In the United States, federal laws do not require date labels. But infant formula is an exception. Under inspection by the FDA, federal regulations require a “Use-By” date on the product label of infant formula. The manufacturer, packer, or distributor chooses the use-by date on the basis of product analysis and other information, and the conditions of handling, storage, preparation, and use provided on the label.
Consumption of infant formula by its use-by date guarantees that the quantity of each nutrient is not less than the declared on the label. The FDA has provided a complete labeling guide for infant formula here.
You might also like: Home Canning: How To Tell If Food Has Gone Bad?
In the European Union, the use-by date is used for highly perishable products such as meats, seafood, and dairy products.
In Hong Kong, manufacturers use the use-by label instead of best before. This applies for highly perishable food items like packed egg and ham sandwich, pasteurized milk, etc.
HOW DO MANUFACTURERS FIGURE THESE DATES OUT?
Manufacturers start to determine the dates during product development through shelf life testing. The main objective of this test is to determine the rate of changes in the product. These changes are periodically checked by testing retention samples at various points (every 30 days for example). A typical shelf life study includes; sensory and physical test, which mainly involve sensory evaluation or taste taste; microbiological test, which detects, identifies, and enumerates the microorganisms; and chemical test (physico-chemical analyses such as acidity level, and moisture content).
These tests answers questions such as the following.
- Sensory and physical – Has the taste changed? Has it become soft? Has the appearance changed? Is the product acceptable still (say on day 60 of observation)?
- Microbiological – Has the microbial population (say on day 30) exceeded the allowable limit? Is it too high for safety?
- Chemical – At what point significant decline in nutrients starts? Have the fats become rancid? Has the acidity increased greatly?
The behavior of these parameters or attributes during the study is interconnected. Like for example, increased microbial activity during the later stage of the study may result in the development of off-flavors and odors, discoloration, decreased viscosity (in sauces), and other changes.
The criteria of end of shelf life vary, depending on the food. But more commonly, it is attributed by the increased level of spoilage microorganisms. Other easily detectable changes (such as taste, odor, color) are also considered.
After the end of the study, manufacturers can then set the expiry date based on the established longest possible storage time. Commonly, they choose the expiry date long before the actual product testing indicated. Unfortunately, there is not a standard for this, and companies set date labels at their own discretion.
Check out this document for more on shelf life study.
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