There is a distinct contrast to the way that fruits and vegetables are sold in the UK and New Zealand. In the UK, almost all of the supermarket produce comes packaged in a kind of plastic that inevitably bursts open when an attempt is made to liberate the contents such that they spill all over the kitchen floor and get bruised. In New Zealand, produce is generally sold in bins. You get to choose which individual fruits/veg you buy, pop them in a bag and get them weighed at the checkout. A crucial difference is that there is no “Best Before” date on the Antipodean produce, there can’t be really, while the UK packs have one. Another difference is that there are some vegetables which I believe that should not be sold in plastic bags, and potatoes would be an example. They need to be kept dark, cool and dry. Wrapped in plastic they turn to frothy potato soup in no time flat as they sweat in their hermetically sealed shroud.
We have oranges in our fridge dated “Best Before” 5 June (over a month ago) and there is nothing wrong with them -they are certainly no less safe to eat now than they were on the 5th of June. They may not be quite as juicy as they were before, but they are still fine (I know, I just tested one organoleptically).
Of course, the “Best Before” date is just that-there is no link to food safety, just quality. But the question would be, what proportion of the population know that? How many people see the date and instantly think that the food is no longer “good”? Then, in the green waste it goes, adding to the food waste statistics. A 2016 study of American attitudes towards date marking (https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ncl/pages/3071/attachments/original/1462971984/date_labeling_report.pdf?1462971984 ) reported that a third of consumers always discard food on the marked date (although date labelling is more complex in the States). In the UK 14% of consumers consider the “Best Before” date to be about food safety (http:// www.wrap.org.uk/content/consumer-insight-date-labels-and-storage-guidance ). According to this hypothesis Kiwis, then, should be less wasteful of food than the Brits as they are not programmed to chuck produce out on a particular date, just when they perceive it to be off or, to use a technical term, manky.
In the US an estimated 40% of the food supply goes to waste at a cost of $218 billion (US), and two thirds of this lies at the door of consumers. A 2015 press article in New Zealand reported an $872 (NZ) million figure for waste in that country. In 2013 the estimate for food waste in the UK was £2.5 billion. I did some calculations to get a general idea of the cost of food waste per person per year in these three countries and the results were:
US: 324 million population. Waste estimate, 218 billion, so 218 billion/324million = $673 a head = £514
NZ: 4.4 million population. Waste estimate 872 million, so 872 million/4.4 million = $ 198 a head = £111
UK: 65 million population. Waste estimate 2.5 billion, so 2.5 billion/65 million = £40 a head
While bearing in mind that the costs are likely to have been calculated on a different basis in each case, the results are not consistent with the produce dating differences outlined above. People in the UK should be throwing out more food than Kiwis, but apparently not. The figure for the USA is astounding by comparison (suggesting that, perhaps, a greater range of costs may be included in that estimate).
Another interesting nuance is the “Consume within X days of opening” label. Well it is possible that the millisecond a pack is opened that billions of pathogens land on the food within it and start to grow. Perhaps not very likely though. This appears to be “hazard based” and not “risk based”. I checked our fridge and found this a statement on a packet of bacon “once opened use immediately”.
Again, “Once opened use immediately”. Really? This is a product with a “Use By” date on it which is fair enough for bacon. It also has a protective atmosphere which will no longer be present when the pack is opened. But will any pathogens on the bacon released from the constraints of the protective atmosphere make the bacon unsafe in any length of time longer than “immediately”? Perhaps the consideration is quality, not safety. But the question remains-will the bacon go off “immediately”?
Another aspect to this are claims by the UK media that food companies are using “Use By” dates on products that only need “Best Before” dates to encourage consumers to throw away perfectly good (i.e. safe) food and buy replacement product unnecessarily. This would be a rather cynical manipulation requiring action for the trend to be stopped and, perhaps, products needing only “Best Before” dates need to be prescribed.
It all needs a long hard look.