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An open can of sardines or similar with a best before date stamped on the top, against a background of food items in a pantry
Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff

KaiMay 16, 2024

Are best-before dates a waste of time – and a waste of food?

An open can of sardines or similar with a best before date stamped on the top, against a background of food items in a pantry
Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff

Critics say they cause consumer confusion, contribute to food waste and should be ditched, but brands and retailers rely on them.

I thought Pods were dead. Discontinued to the dismay of thousands. Sold for hundreds on Trade Me before disappearing for ever. So when I found some in a dairy in the Auckland suburb of Morningside I was delighted. They cost $8 a bag.

When I mentioned this miraculous find to a coworker they replied, “Yeah, I don’t know about that dairy. Check the date.” I had already eaten the whole bag and had not checked the date even though I knew Pods were discontinued three years ago.

But what does a date – on a bag of shelf-stable wafer encasing Snickery goodness held in place by a highly preserved chocolate hat – even mean?

What are best-before dates? What are use-by dates? Have you ever deeply considered them? I had not. So I took a dive into the extremely sexy world of date labels to understand what they are, who sets them and why the heck they’re on Pods, bottled water, toilet paper, cat kibble and a bunch of other stuff you wouldn’t expect. This is what I found.

The pods in question (Photo: Liv Sisson)

Use-by dates are driven by food safety. Food should not be eaten past its use-by date and it’s illegal to sell food beyond it. 

Best-before dates are quality indicators. You can eat food/use products beyond the best-before date. They should still be safe but they may have lost some quality. Best-before dates are set by manufacturers. Food can legally be sold beyond best-before dates if it’s still fit for consumption. 

A sign recently seen at Woolworths indicates at least one person is a little unclear on the difference between these two dates. “Prime Hydration drinks are safe to consume 6 months after the best before date printed on the bottle. Please see customer service if you have any questions,” it read.

On reflection, I already knew the difference between best-before and use-by. But as a busy, often hangry person I had never held the comparison as a fully formed thought in my conscious mind for more than .2 seconds. Instead I’m tearing into the Pods, giving the yoghurt or whatever a sniff and then chowing down. 

There are calls here and abroad to remove best-before dates. Why? Some feel they cause consumer confusion which leads to food waste. A survey conducted by Rabobank and KiwiHarvest in 2023 found the annual value of New Zealand’s food waste is $3.2 billion, or enough food to feed 688,000 people for an entire year. 

How are we managing to waste so much kai? In the survey, the most frequently cited reasons for food waste were people not managing to eat food before it goes off before the use-by or best-before date. 

Waste educator Kate Fenwick (Photo: Supplied)

Kate Fenwick has been a waste educator for nearly 20 years. She teaches about 100 food waste courses each year with Love Food Hate Waste. “The biggest thing I come across is confusion around use-by being food safety but best-by is the brand saying it will guarantee the product is best before that date,” says Fenwick. “It’ll probably be fine afterwards, but they won’t guarantee it.

“I think best-by dates are a waste of time and a waste of food,” she adds. “They are unnecessary on so many foods. This has taken away people’s ability to use their senses. People will throw away a perfectly good pasta because it’s past best-before even though it’s perfectly fine. People see a date and think ‘that’s it, I can’t eat it past that date’.” 

Fenwick can recall a time in New Zealand when dates rarely appeared on food. “Most products in the supermarket now have a date on them. Bags of cat food, frozen goods, toilet paper – I think that’s ridiculous, once food is frozen it can deteriorate but it can’t go off. I saw dishwasher tablets with a best before. This is just so unnecessary. Cream cheese and yoghurt, for example, can last weeks past best before, especially if unopened.” 

She can appreciate why those dates are there, though. Brands have to protect themselves and want consumers to have the best possible experience with their products. “If something goes wrong, the brand gets attacked, so brands are protecting themselves. They don’t want to be sued for giving out bad food,” she says.

a stack of sliced bread with different bread tags featuring best before dates poking out from between the slices
Photo: Getty Images

Retailers, meanwhile, rely on best-before labelling in a big way. Consider your local supermarket. There are thousands, maybe millions, of items contained within. Imagine trying to keep track of all those individual units. Supermarkets rely on date labels to track and rotate stock to ensure old stock is at the front and new stock is at the back. Dates help supermarkets give eaters the longest gap between dates to minimise food waste at home.

It’s worth noting that 63% of people surveyed in the Rabobank research accurately defined what  “best before” means. Different research, undertaken by Kantar and commissioned by HelloFresh, found that 76% of New Zealanders understood food labelling but 55% still discarded food past best-before because they were afraid it will make them sick.

What drives this intellectual and behavioural disconnect? Maybe it’s not confusion but the need to consider the date at all that leads eaters to trust a label over their senses. Fenwick gives an example of the consideration that the presence of a date forces. “Flour has a best before. If you put it in a tupperware on the counter and throw away the packet, you’ll use it till it’s gone as long as it’s still fine. But as soon as something is in a packet with a date, people question themselves.”

Juno Scott-Kelly, also from Love Food Hate Waste, says, “People just don’t want to look into it, they see a date and if that date is past they just throw it away. And that’s what’s driving up food waste behaviour. People are too busy, they can’t be bothered figuring it out – they see it’s past so it’s unsafe.”

Legislation currently requires any product with a shelf life of less than two years to have a best before. If those dates were removed, retailers would need to find a new way to rotate stock. It can be done though. Scott-Kelly says, “The UK is leading the charge slowly removing the best-before from products where it’s unnecessary. Hopefully that is something Australia and New Zealand would follow through with. We should be focusing on our senses to see if foods are OK. The fact that we’ve got dates on lettuce packets and pasta… back in the day we’d have just given it a quick smell.” 

Using your senses and common sense is one alternative. Love Food Hate Waste also offers reusable “Eat me first” stickers which can help eaters keep track of what needs eating now. They’re a great tool for busy households, flats, offices and so on. HelloFresh, meanwhile, is trialling time-temperature-indicator tech. These special labels show shelf life in real time. Initial trials showed a 15% reduction in food waste.

Love Food Hate Waste’s ‘eat me first’ labels (Photo: Supplied)

When items do reach best-before in supermarkets, where do they go? They might just stay on the shelf, like the Prime energy drinks. They might be moved to a “reduced to clear” shelf. They might be donated to or picked up by food rescue organisations. “Both supermarkets are doing work within this space, sending stuff past best before to KiwiHarvest, for example. They do sense-checking for the public and put those items into food parcels, but it’s slow and difficult,” says Scott-Kelly.

Redirecting food that’s past best-before but still good to eat is meaningful and important work. Recent data shows more than one in five households with children under 15 reported that food runs out often or sometimes, an increase from 14% in 2022. KiwiHarvest rescues about 200,000kg of kai each year and redistributes it to the community. 

Food rescue is a key part of our food system, but it also feels a bit ambulance-at-the bottom-of-the-cliff. People can’t afford kai in the first instance. And waste at the retail level is accepted here, whereas in France, for example, it’s illegal for supermarkets to waste food. These two forces (and plenty of others) create both the supply and demand for food rescue. They create the stakes under which KiwiHarvest annually rescues about 27 million meals and there’s a hungry person waiting for every single one.

Whether best-before dates should be removed or not seems to depend on who you ask.

Either way, eaters do have to wade through quite a bit in this realm. “Even a bottle of water has a best-before date on it,” Fenwick says. “It makes people sceptical. What is safe and what’s not safe? Where does it start and where does it end?”

As a curious eater, I think that is a very good question to ask. Those short-dated Primes are still fine to drink – just ask customer service. But recent lawsuits allege Prime contains harmful levels of PFAS, AKA forever chemicals. On the real food front, around 40 cases of hepatitis A were linked to imported frozen berries here in 2022. The berries continued to be sold, but with an accompanying sign that asked shoppers to please boil the berries before consuming. Kind of a big ask for a product that’s meant to be frozen. And also safe.

Keep going!