Farm Ireland

Monday 20 November 2017

Opinion: Best before dates might just be a waste of time...

Shelf dates are a fairly recent concept
Shelf dates are a fairly recent concept
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Hardly a week goes by when Irish agriculture isn't attacked for its contribution to climate change. But another highly significant, connected, issue, which gets far less attention is food waste; and it's one that everyone, not just farmers, could be addressing.

Among the many stark figures is that one third of the food produced in the world is wasted and, if food waste were a country, it would be the world's third largest, after China and the US. In the EU, every one of us throws out 80kg of food a year on average.

The problem is especially bad this time of year when we seem to have adopted a motto of "Eat, drink and be wasteful". Even the usually prudent lose the run of themselves.

In the past when shops were closed for much longer over the festive period, people bought far less. Of course, money was less plentiful and food relatively more expensive.

The UN has set a target of halving food waste by 2030. All EU Member States have signed up to this but the union has no binding targets on waste.

A 2013 US report on food expiration dates concluded that these were the cause of high, rising, rates of waste.

The EU's health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis recently launched an initiative on reducing waste. Among the areas being mooted for action are a relaxation of the rules on the use of donated food and shelf/expiry dates. This latter one is a bug-bear of mine. We have lost confidence in our own ability to judge when something is OK to eat.

Shelf dates are a fairly recent concept. They only started when supermarkets took over selling milk and the link between the farmer and the consumer was lost. Marks & Spencer starting using them in its store rooms in the 1950s but it was 1973 before Use-By appeared in supermarkets.

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This area is covered by EU regulation on food safety. Also lurking in the background is litigation. Deep down, though, we can't help feeling that these are primarily a way for supermarkets to keep stock moving. As soon as we see some version of "Best Before" of "Use By", our brains seem to freeze. "If I eat this food after this date, some killer bacteria is going to sweep me off."

The reality is that, despite the ready availability of information, surveys have long shown that consumers still don't understand the distinction between the various expiry terms.

One study found that a third of people believe that produce passed its best before date should never be eaten, another that less than 40pc understood the meaning of "Use By".

But what about the first rule of survival, ie common sense. Instead of sell-by dates, maybe we should go back to smell-by dates?

If it smells ok and it isn't slimy, it's probably not going to kill you. If it doesn't taste nice, stop eating. With eggs, a good test is to see if they float. But even floaters may be OK for baking.

Instead of expiry dates, why not "produced on" dates? Then consumers might learn to judge for themselves, see what's really fresh, and buy local.

Food waste Ireland says that up to 80pc of domestic wastage is avoidable. It consists of things like plate scrapings, passed-its-date perishables and crusts.

Just before I sat down to pen these words, I threw out food. It comprised some porridge. It wasn't totally wasted, though, because it went to the hens and they give us back eggs. I fail at furry fruit. If I spot a damaged strawberry in a punnet, instead of removing the offender, I'll ignore it and then when they're all gone, chuck the lot. Chefs need to get in on the act too. In baking, measurements need to be precise but that's not always the case in cooking.

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