QUESTION OF CHOICE: At least some shoppers may be tempted to buy products past their sell-by date if no new batches of them are on the shelves.
The best-before date on the label misguides even the discerning customer.
A popular brand of table salt from a leading manufacturer has a label which indicates it should be used within 24 months of packaging. Does it imply that salt would go bad after two years? Salt is obtained by the process of evaporation of seawater, which has been in existence for eons. Do our processing methods make it unsuitable for human consumption after 24 months? Gingelly and mustard oils have been used by our mothers and grandmothers to prepare pickles which used to keep its quality for years. Why, even packages of our staple grain of rice have labels indicating best-before 24 months of packaging. Does rice become unfit for human consumption after being stored for two years? There are umpteen examples of food items which have dubious labelling which misguide the discerning consumer.
Nowadays, the so-called supermarkets and super stores sell grocery items in colourful polyethylene or polypropylene packets with information on nutrition, batch number, date of packaging and best before or use. What happens to these items that have overstayed on the supermarket shelves beyond the best-before date? Are they thrown away? Do these items really reach a state unfit for human consumption after the best-before date? Such information may be mandatory in advanced countries where supermarket shelves are packed with a variety of processed food items. There is growing concern in the advanced countries also about increasing amounts of food waste and the rising cost of these items mainly due to shoppers buying more than they need, lack of clarity around storage and labelling and over-estimating the quantities required for regular use. Many of the items are thrown away. In our country, the market for processed foods is relatively small. However, with the size of the urban population growing and young professionals getting fat salary cheques, they needlessly stock up on items that they will never use.
It is estimated that about 1.3 billion tonnes of food, about a third of all that is produced, is wasted globally. About 45 per cent of fruit and vegetables, 35 per cent of seafood, 30 per cent of cereals, 20 per cent of dairy products and 20 per cent of meat are so wasted.
The precursor to the concept of best-before date for a product was in the form of sell-by date introduced by Marks and Spencer of London in the 1970s mainly as a stock control measure to ensure a respectable turnover of products on its shelves. Gradually, sell-by-date or best-before dates have come to be assumed by consumers as a guarantee for food safety. Most of us have no idea how long a certain item of food might last in the natural course of events; we unthinkingly throw away good food because they have crossed the best-before date as mentioned on the label. Once we read the best-before date on a product and find that it has passed that date, we do not have the stomach to consume it. This results in unnecessarily wasting of a product. The very idea of the best-before or sell-by date meant for stock management in the supermarkets has inadvertently turned into a standard by which the consumer chooses to consume or throw away a product. We tend to implicitly believe in the labels printed on the packaged product.
The terms best-before or use-by date have somehow come to haunt us with surprising strength, though these are not based on recommendations of experts or certified by testing agencies. The manufacturers benefit by selling more of their products with the high-sounding concept of freshness and safety. Frozen poultry or thawed and chopped onions imported from a foreign country several months ago could be packed in an attractive modified atmosphere packaging to extend the shelf life and endow these ‘old’ items with fresh-like quality, which would be good for a fortnight after packing. This is indeed an anomaly.