Grocery shoppers should use judgment, not best-before dates, due to serious food waste: expert
While a U.K. supermarket chain plans to remove best-before dates from nearly 500 products to tackle food waste, Canadians aren't yet ready to make those changes.
That's according to Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a food distribution and policy professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Packaged fruits and vegetables, including grapes, peppers and lettuce, will be sold without a best-before label in Britain's Waitrose supermarkets as of September — a decision that's a bit too bold for Canada, said Charlebois.
Canadians prioritize food safety over food waste, the professor said, adding that about $2,500 worth of edible products will be thrown away by an average family this year.
The average Canadian wastes about 79 kilograms of food every year, surpassing the average American by 20 kilograms, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). That amounts to 2.94 million tonnes of annual household food waste across the nation.
Canadian shoppers "still have a long way to go" to start relying on their judgment instead of best-before dates like in the U.K., Charlebois suggested.
"The culture around food safety is quite strict," he said. "It's unclear whether people are willing to take a chance even though they are healthy. We're not there yet compared to Europe, in my view."
A best-before date is meant to show the "durable life period" of prepackaged foods before opening, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA) website. Over this period, a product should retain its freshness, taste, nutritional value, and other qualities set by the producer as long as it is stored under the right conditions.
"Food waste is a complex issue related to many factors at all stages of the food supply chain," the CFIA told CTV News. "In addition to date labelling, other factors may include over-production, inventory management, cold-chain management and consumer preferences."
"Industry can factor shelf life into their inventory management practices, and consumers can choose foods with a shelf life that suits their needs," the agency added.
Consumers should pay the most attention to best-before dates on meat and dairy products, but for packaged fruits and vegetables, there's room for personal evaluations based on one's senses, Charlebois said.
Waitrose is not the first U.K. supermarket to scrap many of its best-before dates. In recent years, Tesco and Marks & Spencer stores removed the labels from hundreds of fruit and vegetable items in a bid to cut food waste in half by 2030.
"In Europe, there is more sensitivity around sustainability and food waste, much more so than here in North America," said Charlebois.
CUTTING FOOD WASTE IN CANADA
Besides eliminating some best-before dates, there are other ways Canadians can help reduce food waste, one meal at a time.
Montreal-based FoodHero helps shoppers get a better deal on fresh produce nearing its best-before date. By partnering with supermarkets across Quebec like Metro and IGA, the company gives its users discounts on food that would otherwise be thrown away.
FoodHero says refrigerated eggs can last three to four weeks after the sell-by date, while refrigerated milk is safe to consume up to seven days after what's printed on the carton.
Meanwhile, Danish company Too Good to Go gives Montrealers a chance to save leftover restaurant food from going into the garbage bin. Users across Quebec can use the app to buy "surprise bags" from cafés and restaurants for as little as $5, which often offer a full meal made earlier in the day.
Still, Quebec is subject to federal regulations that require supermarkets to include a best-before date on all products not packed on site that stay fresh for 90 days or fewer.
Those packaged inside the store can be labelled either with a best-before date or a "packaged-on" date with information on the product's durable life.
Best-before dates should not be confused with expiration dates, which are required on products with strict nutritional specifications, such as infant formulas and liquid diets.