Monday, 30 June 2014

The Best Before Date on Packaged Food and Food Wastage

Rice grains may be usable long after their best
before date; public domain photo by Roberto mister robert
The Minister of Agriculture in the Netherlands has just announced that around 15 million tons of food is wasted each year in the European Union. The minister also says that 15% of this amount is due to the best before dates on packages being interpreted incorrectly. These are frightening statistics, especially when there is so much poverty and hunger in the world.

At the moment all packaged food in the European Union must have a best before date shown on its label, as is true in many other parts of the world. The public generally thinks that the food is dangerous after the stated date and must be discarded. For some foods this is true, but many foods will remain edible long after their best before date. They may lose some of their flavour and nutritional value, but they're still safe to eat. 

It's important for consumers to know which foods are safe after the best before date and which aren't. We really need a new labelling system. In the European Union there is pressure to ban best before dates on shelf stable foods. If the best before date is absent or if we're ignoring it, we need our senses and some guidelines to judge whether a food is safe to eat.

Whole grains such as wheat kernels
or berries should be stored in a cool, dark
place; public domain photo by klaus beyer
Perishable foods are generally ones containing moisture and shouldn't be eaten past their best before dates. Examples include packaged salad mixes, other vegetables, fruits, dairy products and breads. Dry, shelf stable foods like pasta, flour and intact grains such as rice may be usable for a long time after the best before date. Whole grain flours generally aren't as stable as flours made from refined grains. Food experts often say that whole grain flours should be stored in a refrigerator in order to prevent them from becoming rancid. 

It's important to keep shelf stable foods in containers with tight lids and to store the containers in a cool and dark place. It's also important to inspect the food with sight and smell before using it. The old adage "when in doubt, throw it out" is very applicable. Nevertheless, it's not necessary to automatically throw shelf stable foods away when they reach their best before date.