Consumer attitudes to 'best before' dates contribute to food waste, UQAM study finds

The new study's authors found that consumers place a high value on the best-before date, even if food is generally perfectly safe to eat after that date.

Dates stamped on food aren't a marker of food safety, authors say, but consumers don't think that way

One stockroom manager said that even if consumers know yogurt is safe to eat past its best-before date, they won't buy it off the shelves. (The Associated Press)

Consumers are placing too much importance on the "best before" dates on their food, according to a new study by sustainability researchers at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

The study looking at food waste surveyed 1,026 Quebec consumers and included interviews with 14 stockroom managers at grocery stores. It was co-authored by UQAM professors René Audet and Éliane Brisebois, who share a research chair on the transition to a more sustainable economy.

Audet said they found that consumers place a high value on the best-before date, even if food is generally perfectly safe to eat after that date. 

Respondents said they often reach to the back of a shelf to grab an item with the furthest away best-before date and throw away items whose best-before dates had pass — some, even as that date was approaching.

The majority of respondents said they go grocery shopping once or twice per week, spending between $50 and $150 on groceries weekly.

The authors classified respondents into three categories: conciliators (58 per cent), planners (25 per cent), and improvisers (17 per cent). 

Planners are the least wasteful and generally know how to revitalize older food. 

Improvisers spend more on food and are more likely to be susceptible to marketing ploys such as buy one, get one free. They are also the most wasteful.

The conciliators know that food waste is a problem but lack strategies to reduce their personal food waste.

The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization estimates about one third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste.

Confusion over meaning of 'best before'

"There's a lot confusion about best-before dates," said Lawrence Goodridge, McGill University's Ian and Jayne Munro Chair in Food Safety, in an interview on CBC Montreal's Daybreak

While it may denote when the food is at its tastiest, he said, it is not meant to gauge whether a food item is safe to eat.

"Consumers have to be educated to know what information on food packages mean," he said.

"It has nothing to do with safety."

Goodridge says it's a mistake to throw away food based simply on the date stamped on its packaging. 

What's more important, he said, is properly handling and preparing the food.

One food safety expert said that proper preparation is more important than respecting best-before dates. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

He said the "smell test" can also be a better gauge of food spoilage, but cautions against using only that, as bacteria such as salmonella is not detectable by smell.

However, the presence of such bacteria has nothing to do with an item's time on the shelf, he said.

Legally, stores can sell food that's past its best-before date. But Goodridge said few do, to avoid a hit to their reputation.

Stores preemptively taking items off the shelves

Intermarche Boyer stockroom manager Robert Langevin estimated his grocery store throws away two to three per cent of its stock because of expired best-before dates.

"[With] yogurt you can pull it almost a week before, even if people know that yogurt is good past the date," said Langevin in an interview on Daybreak

He said his store, like many others, will reduce the price of food items or even remove them from shelves as the best-before date approaches.

The UQAM study also sought to re-evaluate how we see the cost of wasting food — beyond the dollars that come out of one's wallet.

"The way we see food should maybe change a little bit," said Audet, adding that most respondents saw the waste as a financial hit rather than a symptom of an unsustainable food system.

Audet notes that it's not just food that's wasted, but the water, agricultural land, raw materials and energy used to produce it and ship it.