Dear Readers: I am DELIGHTED to introduce for the Law of Food’s first ever guest blogger: Patrick Dyke! Patrick is an articling student at Gilbert’s LLP and is a true regulatory geek at heart, which is why I know you’ll love reading his blogs! Enjoy.
We’ve all been there. Staring at an item in the refrigerator, trying to remember when we bought it. It has been hiding in the back of the fridge for a while, and we’re wondering…is it still good?
If you’re like me you probably rely on any number of tests before making a decision: Smell test? Check. Does it look “off”? Nope. But what about that pesky best before date?
Personally, I have always been a strict follower of the best before date. As the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) itself advises, “if in doubt, throw it out.” Or, the way I see it, “if in doubt, it just doesn’t taste as good” – maybe not as catchy, but still a good point.
A recent conundrum got me thinking, though, whether my faith in the best before date is well placed. Of course, as a food law geek, I went straight to the regulations to find out!
Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations generally require that any pre-packaged product with a “durable life” of under 90 days be labeled with a “durable life date” (aka best before date). There are some exceptions to this rule, e.g. for prepackaged fresh fruits and vegetables, and some products invite heightened labeling requirements, e.g. baby formula, but for most pre-packaged products that’s the standard.
So what exactly is the “durable life” of a product? According to the Regulations, it is the length of time, determined by the manufacturer, during which a packaged product, stored under appropriate conditions, will “retain, without any appreciable deterioration, its normal wholesomeness, palatability, nutritional value and any other qualities claimed for it by the manufacturer.”
Three things jump out at me here: (1) the durable life considers food quality more than food safety; (2) the date is up to the manufacturer to decide; and (3) it is only valid for unopened foods stored under specific conditions.
(1) Food Quality not Food Safety: As Sara has blogged repeatedly, the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations have plenty of new and old rules put in place to ensure the safety of Canadians’ food. It would appear, though, that the best before date does not play a big role in this regard. While deterioration in wholesomeness, palatability or nutritional quality might signal a food safety issue, they don’t overlap perfectly. CFIA also warns against using best before dates as a proxy for food safety.
(2) Manufacturers Set the Durable Life Date: On the one hand this makes sense. Who better to know (or test for) how long a product will retain its wholesomeness, palatability, and nutritional value than the person who developed and/or produces the product? On the other hand, there may be some concern that manufacturers can skew the dates they choose in order to increase sales. By setting an earlier best before date, people (like me) will be more likely to discard an unfinished item and purchase a new one.
(3) Only Valid for Unopened Products Kept Under Specific Conditions: Again this can be understood from two angles. It is clearly much easier and more reliable to figure out the durable life date based on ideal or controlled conditions. However, while this is helpful, more often than not it’s the last quarter or last third of a carton of something that I’m most worried about. In such circumstances, the best before date is of little help.
Given the uncertain footing upon which durable life dates rest, I think we could all be forgiven for erring on the side of caution. But from both an environmental and economical perspective, the premature disposal of food is problematic. I often pause for thought whenever I throw out food and, while it might not force me into eating spoiled food, I never feel good when I don’t use food that I’ve purchased.
So where does this leave us all? While best before dates are certainly a useful tool in assessing the quality of a product, they aren’t the be-all and end-all. I think that going forward I will take a more flexible approach to the best before date and try to convince my taste buds to take the best before date with a grain of salt.