Best before ever

September 2, 2016 1:52 pm
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Did you know that canned foods with longer than 2 years’ of shelf life do not require a best before date?

I recently came across an interesting British Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) report promoting reduction in waste by extending product life.  It was estimated that shoppers could save upwards of £500m, and businesses could save £100m in waste prevention alone. The report included some really impressive figures which could make a big difference.

It all sounded like a great opportunity. But how do you go about extending the shelf life?

Brief history

The Guardian reported that sell by dates were first introduced in the UK in Marks & Spencer’s storerooms during the 1950’s, primarily as a stock control methodology. The concept eventually made it’s way on to the supermarket shelves during the 1970’s.

Fast forward a few more years to when food safety implications were better understood, and use by and best before dates on products became legislative.  A use by date is required on foods that, for health and safety reasons, must be eaten before a particular date – legally products cannot be sold beyond this date. Examples include ready to eat and chilled goods such as yogurt, milk, fish and meat. The best before date however, is the manufacturers recommendation of the last day when a product is suggested to be consumed at its peak quality. You may be surprised to know that, legally, it is possible to sell products which are beyond this date.

When we bake at home, there’s no definitive use by or best before date – so how do we know whether we should or shouldn’t eat those leftovers or that batch of chocolate brownies? We check the quality using our senses of smell, sight, touch, and if nothing is amiss, we go ahead and eat it.

Ultimately, the consequence of selling products with a use by or best before date indicated is that, unfortunately, between the manufacturer, retailer and consumer, a great deal of food probably fit for consumption previously, is thrown away.

Manufacturers actively choose to err on the side of caution by issuing shorter use by or best before dates on products to avoid causing irreparable brand damage. The risk of being accused of causing food poisoning, or worse, or selling a less than perfect product is too hazardous in an increasingly competitive market.

So if manufacturers are choosing to be more cautious, how do they calculate use by and best before dates in reality? Are the results scientific? Are they adaptable depending on changing trends and quality of ingredients? The report invites retailers and manufacturers to challenge their current guidance, prioritising products with a short shelf life or high waste impactors.

Another contributing factor to waste is the minimum life on receipt (MLOR); this is the shelf life remaining on the product when it is received by the retailer.  One retailer researched in Australia requires at least 50% life remaining for a product with a shelf life between 1-2 years.  This means that if a product has a 2-year life the retailer has to receive it within 1 year of its life, suggesting they require up to 1 year to sell the product and for it to be consumed. The recommendation in the report is to move from 75% to 85%, which would mean in this instance going from 6 months to 4 months, a long way off the current position.

For the rest of the report and its interesting conclusions and recommendations see:


Written by Sally Wood, Coriolis Consulting Pty Ltd