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Best before dates won't eliminate food waste, says U of G prof

Using the scratch and sniff test to determine if food has gone bad past the best before date
Keith Warriner, food science professor at the University of Guelph in his lab.

Removing best before dates is not the solution to food waste suggests a University of Guelph food researcher.

Keith Warriner is a professor at U of G who studies food-borne illness prevention.

“Best before dates were a regulation implemented two decades ago,” said Warriner. “What the rule states is that anything with a shelf life under the 90 days, basically has to have a best before date.”

Best before dates provides customers a gauge of the quality of the produce. It isn’t an expiry date, where it would not be ideal to consume after the printed date like a bottle of vitamins.

“There are very few items that actually are dangerous to eat after the best before date,” he said. 

Items like deli meats and pre-cooked meals you warm up again could be dangerous to eat after the best before date because of the pathogens that could form.

“The problem we’ve got though is a lot of these best before dates are not based on science,” said Warriner. 

If the best before dates were removed, and a consumer buys a tomato for instance, they take it home and the next day it goes bad, is the onus on the consumer or the retailer? This is a question Warriner posed.

The scratch and sniff test, using your senses to determine if a food product has gone bad is what Warriner suggests.

Fruit and vegetables account for 40 per cent of food waste and are either thrown away by the retailer or consumer.

The most wasted vegetable in Canada are potatoes, two and half million are wasted per year.

To reduce waste Warriner suggests buying smaller amounts of items and stop buying in bulk to avoid items going bad.

Washing produce also reduces shelf life, he said.

There are technologies like smart packaging with markers which change colour when the item is no longer good to eat. Although there is technology to extend shelf life, packaging is being reduced for a better environmental impact and consumers are not interested in it, said Warriner.

“We seem to live in this sort of fantasy land that back in the old days they had it all right. They take out preservatives, we don’t process it,” said Warriner.

As a compromise Warriner said there could be a code on products.

“Where if people really wanted to know the best before date they could actually just scan it," said Warriner. “I would imagine the vast majority of people won’t even bother,” said Warriner.