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With Food Waste Concerns on the Rise, What Do ‘Best Before’ Labels Really Mean?

A woman grocery shopping

With the skyrocketing cost of groceries and “shrinkflation” making our packaged goods smaller, concerns around food waste are on the rise, and many people are now turning their attention to another contributing factor: “best before” labels.

This is due, in part, to “shelflation,” which finds that people are trashing more food than normal due to food quality and shelf-life issues, but part of it actually comes down to our food labels.

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Manufacturers use “best before” labels to try and estimate when their products will be the most fresh. Where “use by” labels are on perishable foods like meat and dairy, “best before” labels actually have nothing to do with safety, according to CTV News.

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Patty Apple – a manager at Food Shift, which is a nonprofit that collects expired or imperfect foods – explains that “best before” labels might even make consumers toss food that’s entirely edible. That not only means that the food is wasted, but the energy behind it – such as the water, land and labour behind food production – is wasted, too. Plus, when discarded food makes its way to a landfill, it ups the greenhouse gas emissions of the food-to-table process.

According to ReFED – a nonprofit in New York that studies food waste – around 7 per cent of food waste in America, which amounts to 4 million tons per year, is because consumers don’t fully understand the purpose of “best before” labels.

“They read these dates and then they assume that it’s bad, they can’t eat it and they toss it, when these dates don’t actually mean that they’re not edible or they’re not still nutritious or tasty,” Apple tells CTV News.

According to the United Nations, approximately 17 per cent of global food production is wasted each and every year, with the majority of that waste coming from households.


A hand pushing red pepper scraps off a table

Other countries have already taken this issue head on, with major chains in the U.K. scrapping “best before” labels from prepackaged fruit and vegetables.  The European Union is even anticipated to revamp their labeling laws on the whole, potentially abolishing “best before” labels across the continent.

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The United States, on the other hand, aren’t taking part in that same push, but there is a movement looking to standardize language on date labels to help to educate consumers about the dangers of food waste.

“Most people believe that if [food labels say] ‘sell by,’ ‘best by,’ or ‘expiration,’ you can’t eat any of them,” Grocery Outlet owner Richard Lipsit explains. “That’s not actually accurate.”

According to Lipsit, milk can often be safely consumed for up to a week after its “use by” date. Even the FDA suggests to look for changes in food colour, consistency or texture to see if food is spoiled or not instead of the “best before” date.”

Related: Foods you can still eat after the expiry date.

“Our bodies are very well equipped to recognize the signs of decay, when food is past its edible point,” ReFED executive director Dana Gunders adds. “We’ve lost trust in those senses and we’ve replaced it with trust in these dates.”

A study conducted by Dalhousie University in partnership with the Angus Reid Institute found that most Canadians actually oppose eliminating “best before” dates, even though it could reduce food waste.

But people like Apple who work in nonprofits and understand that clearer labeling could help places like Food Shift, see things differently.


“We definitely need to be focusing more on doing these small actions like addressing expiration date labels, because even though it’s such a tiny part of this whole food waste issue, it can be very impactful,” she explains.

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