Food Waste and Best Before Dates – What Your Household Needs to Know

We recently published an important article about how to reduce food waste in your home, touching on the topic of how to eat to beat the ‘best before’ date. However, it is within the best before that bears further investigation. 

The National Zero Waste Council (NZWC) of Canada has stated that confusing and unnecessary so-called expiry labels are a major cause of food waste in the country:

“When they see ‘best before’ they think it means if they eat it afterwards, there’s going to be a health problem. That’s not true.” Denise Philippe, NZWC

It’s completely understandable that as a family household, you have been traditionally concerned about ‘best before’ dates, especially when you’ve got the health of young ones to think about. But it seems that a longstanding lack of education on the matter has led to an outright food waste epidemic. Think we’re exaggerating? Research shows that every Canadian loses or wastes nearly 400 kilograms of food a year, with about 47 percent of that occurring within the home, and perhaps even more startling, is that we lead most nations as one of the biggest wasters of food on the entire planet.

So, before you perform your next cupboard, pantry, and refrigerator inventory prior to a grocery shopping expedition, we urge you to read ahead.

4 Things Canadian Households Need to Know About ‘Best Before’ Dates to Reduce Food Waste

1. What Best Before Actually Means

The ‘best before’ date refers to the quality and shelf life of an unopened food item, not safety. The date tells you the nearest approximation of how long a product will retain its ideal flavor, texture (i.e. crispness), and nutritional value when stored under recommended conditions.

Foods sold in Canada are required to have ‘best before’ dates when the items typically keep fresh for 90 days or less. However, many products display ‘best before’ dates even though they aren’t required to do so, to ensure customer satisfaction. The intent was never for a consumer to toss out a product simply because the date has passed. Most people reading this had no idea, until now.

2. Abide by Storage Instructions

The ‘best before’ date applies to an unopened food product. Once opened, it no longer explicitly applies. However, manufacturers in Canada are required to clearly label storage instructions on food packages. You will want to read these before or immediately after opening. The instructions are often simply stated, such as “refrigerate after opening” or “keep refrigerated” so be sure to follow the guidelines accordingly. Typical dairy foods including (but not exclusive to) eggs, milk and yogurt can be safely eaten days after their ‘best before’ dates have passed, while numerous packaged foods such as crackers, cereal, canned soup, canned tuna, and more can be safely eaten weeks beyond the passing of the suggested ‘best before’ period. For more explicit item by item accounting of how long you can safely store (and then consume) a particular food item, reference this Government of Canada Safe Food Storage Guide

In storing food properly, you can significantly extend its life beyond the ‘best before’ date and directly reduce food waste coming from your postal code. 

3. Support Initiatives to Standardize Labels 

Another problem with ‘best before’ and expiry dates, is a lack of standardization. Have you ever looked for the label only to be baffled by the dating format, not knowing which number is a month or day? You’re not alone, and yet this alone can have you throw an item into the garbage bin to mitigate health risk in the home. If you’re unsure about an item, use the customer service number (or email) on the package to make your inquiry before discarding the food item.

Regardless of your own diligence, there should never be confusion as to whether  ‘best before 1/6′ (example) means January 6th or June 1st, and so forth. The only way for this food waste facilitator to be eradicated is for the federal government to step in to standardize ‘best before’ labelling conventions. This should not only include dating formats, but also provide buyers with both clarity and options, including ‘freeze by’, ‘use by, or ‘tastes best by’.

Moving forward, take note of any discussion on the matter, and show your support where applicable. You can keep up to date on developments and opportunities to be heard by following all press releases from the National Zero Food Waste Council.

The federal government has pledged to cut food waste in half by 2030 and is writing a national food policy to address it. Let’s hope that the standardization of labels is included, but enforced well before 2030, which may be an expiry date on our country’s own ability to defeat food waste and food insecurity alike.

4. The Other Food Waste Prevention Best Practices

Of course, ‘best before’ labelling is just one piece of the puzzle. Your household will want to follow all best practices as they apply to reducing food waste in the home. These include keeping an up to date inventory of your pantry, proportion considerate meal preparation, washing produce just before consumption, shopping at your local farmers market, and composting potential food waste in your home or community garden. View our complete six step guide to reducing household food waste.


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