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The Tale of the Expiration Date

(c) Sophie Minihold

(c) Sophie Minihold

Once upon a time… or to be honest it is a common ritual and happens every now and then: You are hungry in your kitchen. You open the fridge hoping to find anything edible and grab one of these yoghurts, far in the back, you already had forgotten about. As a matter of routine, you take a look on the date label of the yoghurt and let out a resentful sigh. Shoot, it happened again! Its “best before” date passed four days ago. Suddenly you are not only hungry but rather find yourself between the devil and the deep blue sea: eating out-of-date yoghurt which might lead to food poisoning or toss it and therefore literally throw away your money? In order to decide what to do, and to free you from the evil date label clutches, read the tale of the expiration date first.

First of all: Your decision between tossing and eating the yoghurt is not that complicated. You should basically judge food by sight, smell and taste rather than by a printed date. Nevertheless you are not alone in your confusion about what to do with expired food. This is due to the fact that we do not produce our own food anymore. Therefore we need to rely on the manufacturer to tell us until when we can eat food without getting ill. As a consequence, various kinds of date labels found its way on food packaging.

The manufacturer decides

A date that tells you when groceries are not safe to eat anymore is in and on itself a reasonable idea. However, expiration labels are not an indicator for that. An expiration label rather tells you until when the manufacturer guarantees the best quality for a product regarding taste, sight and texture. After the expiration date goodies do not instantly become hazardous. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) show evidence that consumers have difficulties understanding the difference between date labels. In general there exist legally required date marks and labels used for stock control purposes. In Europe date marking is required by law. However what type of date label is printed on products is up to the manufacturer. If consumers do not understand the meaning of a date label, they might toss edible food out of needless safety concerns. The British Government has already made a first step to reduce potential confusion among customers; they reduced the amount of voluntary date marks.

“Best before” vs. “Use by”

The European Union also takes action to prevent food waste. Recent findings by the EU-funded research project FUSIONS show that 88 million tonnes of food are wasted in the EU every year. Therefore, the EU has launched a study devoted to date marking on food labels and food waste prevention. First study results are expected at the end of 2017. Another approach to decrease confusion regarding date labels is education. Best of all, you can take action yourself. Do not be part of this wasteful lifestyle and simply inform yourself about date labels!

  1. The “best before” date tells you until when you can expect the best flavour. It relates to food quality, and therefore, is not a safety date. Fresh fruit, vegetables, wines, salt, sugar, vinegar and chewing gums are exempted from the “best before” date.

  2. The “use by” date relates to food safety. It indicates the last date recommended for use and is especially important for highly perishable foods such as fresh fish, meat and dairy products. This label is determined by the manufacturer.

The best strategy to flee from the land of confusion, where date labels live, is education. Be aware of the different date labels on products and judge the quality of food yourself. Expiration dates are nice indicators; however your sight and smell are unbeatable. And they lived happily ever after… if they trusted their taste-buds.


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