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Deceptive "Best Before" Labels: A Worldwide Swindling on an Industrial Scale

Updated on October 13, 2014
How much of these products will be destined to a bin because of manipulation with the expiry date labels?
How much of these products will be destined to a bin because of manipulation with the expiry date labels?

The European Union has turned its eyes on food wastage, these days systematically and artificially created by the food industries. There had been some consumer complaints and not very noticeable discussions but when the investigative media started to publish articles and studies on the subject, the European Commission decided to tackle the problem.

According to Sharon Dijksama, the Dutch agriculture minister, 15% of food waste is caused by expiry date labeling. But perhaps the most shaking news come from France where food producers got caught with labeling foods for export with far longer Best Before dates than products meant for the French European market.

Food waste is already a big problem in the Western societies. Whereas many of us throw away still perfectly edible food, there are still parts of the World where despite years of fighting against malnutrition people still suffer from hunger. Campaigns to stop people from tossing away good food are getting more and more common, for example in this video an NGO from the UK giving people tips how they can push back the Best Before date.

Unfortunately, these initiatives are not in the interest of everyone, even less fortunately, those who prefer people throwing away anything even approaching the red lines are wealthy multinationals. For a long time this used to be the playground of conspiracy theorists and independent media, but anymore.

Consumers started noticing - according to the labels, food already spoiled still looked good, smelled good and according to the courageous, also tasted good. People had already taken notice that the best before dates seem to always get closer which was easily explained by the industry that they are using less preservatives or that the product is now fresher and has had less treatment. All for the good of the consumer.

During the period of 2013-2014 investigations and articles were published by Le Monde, Le Figaro, The Independent, The Telegraph, Time magazine, and perhaps most interesting study by a French TV canal D8's "En Quête d'Actualité" who visited producers (some of whom admitted their food is fine for months after the suggestion on the label, had foods tested in laboratories and even showed a whole network of expired food market with whole supermarkets selling only expired food.

Victorin Lurel presenting his speech in the Senate, May 2013
Victorin Lurel presenting his speech in the Senate, May 2013

It was the French minister of the French Overseas Territories, Victorin Lurel, who exposed to the French Senate a document detailing 300 products with different expiry dates set for food meant for the French European market and for the overseas territories. For example producers had set expiry date for fresh cheese at 20 days in Metropolitan France and 55 days for export, a ham with 27 days in Europe and 40 days overseas and perhaps most questionable: Strasbourg sausages which were marked as spoiled after 25 days for the local market, but were deemed perfectly fine (if eaten on the other side of the world) 100 days after the production date.

The widest gap brought out in the document was almost 5 months, 40 days and 180 days for export. Minister Lurel called the phenomenon "Organized waste" while asking if on one hand the European consumers aren't incited to throw away good food whereas at overseas the consumers are supposed to be happy eating "fresh" product that has been sitting on shelf for four months.

Length of safety for consumption in the European market
Expiry date label for the Export market
Gap in days between the labels
Chocolate cake
Vanilla cream
Sliced ham
Fresh cheese
Camembert cheese
Chicken sausage
Strasbourg sausage
Reblochon cheese
Grated gruyère cheese
Examples of expiry date gaps from the document presented by Minister Lurel

One proposed measure by the European Commission to combat the waste of food, which is evaluated to be at 100 tonnes per year in the Union, would be to start phasing out the use of 'Best Before' on chosen groups of foodstuff, such as rice, pickles, hard cheese, jam, pasta and others. First example comes from 2013 when vinegar, a preservative on its own right, was allowed to go without the label.

The UK Government showed their opposition to the project, worrying that it might have an opposite effect - consumers could be more prone to throw away good food because they're not sure if it is good to eat or not. Proponents argue that it is fairly easy to detect if foods are safe to eat and only the high-risk categories should remain under strict regulation, meaning that raw meat, eggs and some milk products would naturally continue to have their 'use by' dates fixed by the law.

In all of the developed world food waste has become an alarming issue. This article published in Japan August 25th 2014 also mentions the need to review the industry practices.
In all of the developed world food waste has become an alarming issue. This article published in Japan August 25th 2014 also mentions the need to review the industry practices.

What Can You Do?

We can all avoid wasting food, and save money while doing it.

  • The first step is to avoid hoarding food. Shopping should be done with a list to avoid buying what you already have at home.
  • Food stocked at home should be rotated so that everything would be eaten and nothing could be forgotten in the back of the cupboard.
  • If properly stocked according to food preservation guidelines even food with their packages opened can be stored for considerably long time. Do some research and check out websites like to find information how to store different foods.
  • Be bold! The only foods where the label should be vigorously respected are raw meats, unpasteurized milk, fish and some other similar products which attract germs.
  • Eggs are special. While dangerous for the risk of containing salmonella, they can usually be kept even at room temperature if they haven't been handled and washed. Once eggs are washed they get contaminated withing only a few days even in the fridge. Try to use them before three weeks, but you'll be fine up to five weeks after the day when they were laid.
  • Don't be afraid to eat ugly food - crooked carrots, squished peppers, small apples, disfigured potatoes - once cooked they'll taste the same as their pretty counterparts.
  • Learn about the Taste before you waste concept. It can't kill you, but it can reduce the amount of waste and save you money.

The Taste Before You Waste Program


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    • Carol Houle profile image

      Carol Houle 3 years ago from Montreal

      I agree that the taste and smell can be the judge in many cases. There was mentioned a while back; a guy who rented a place and bought up "expired" food (excluding meats), for quick resale at inexpensive prices. They verify a sample from each batch before it goes on the shelf. I might check out the produce and canned goods if I had access to that. Sometimes riper is sweeter :~)

    • koerakoonlane profile image

      koerakoonlane 3 years ago from Paris

      Absolutely. This really is one subject that people don't know a lot about and maybe even don't want to. It touches very sensitive topics like food safety but also trust in general. There's no secret that the governments don't regulate the expiry date labeling a lot, so all we, the consumers can do is to trust the industry, trust their goodwill that what they put on their packaging is the truth.

      Spread the word!

    • yasirchohan profile image

      Yasir chohan 3 years ago from Reisterstown

      I see your point. I think at this point, the only thing that we can do is raise awareness about the issue. Awareness itself is a powerful tool. When questions start being raised they'll have to either give answers or change their policy.

      I agree!

    • koerakoonlane profile image

      koerakoonlane 3 years ago from Paris

      Thank you for the insightful comment,

      I never wish to wander off to the conspiracy theorists' lands, but it is true that big corporations have a lot of influence on our societies. 15% might not be a lot, but with revenues at billions of euros a year, even 0.01% is worth going at. So if we have a member of a government expose these numbers, it will make you think. Why put 75 days between the two BB dates? Either it is to put pressure on one market or to let another market eat food of inferior quality (after sitting on shelves for months), in any case, something is very wrong and something has to be done.

      We are lucky to have countries with territories wide apart for the comparison, otherwise this kind of scams could never see daylight.

    • yasirchohan profile image

      Yasir chohan 3 years ago from Reisterstown

      One of the best Hubs that I have come across today. Its just pitiable how much food gets wasted in our society while millions are dying of hunger. To be honest, I never looked at the equation from this respect and so I never considered expiry date as a variable, but your hub changed my mind.

      I sometimes feel that even this is a strategy for profit maximization...

    • koerakoonlane profile image

      koerakoonlane 3 years ago from Paris

      Oh, the GMO's are another fascinating subject. In any case, processed can hardly ever be trusted if you ask me. Some of them hardly need any packaging to stay as edible as they are on day 1 (meaning not that edible according to some). Have seen the articles about fast food burgers remain visually the same even months after keeping them in open air? Ice cream that won't melt or sausages that disappear in ovens? (Practically no meat them, just additives and fat so they melt heat and are absorbed by dough)

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 3 years ago from Citra Florida

      As a society we are remarkably ignorant about the food we eat and manufacturers take advantage of our ignorance.

      For example, canned foods are safe to eat almost forever (with the exception of high acid foods. Acidic foods will interact with the metal of the can and impart a very metallic taste. Acid foods canned in glass remove this issue)

      Packaged bakery mixes are good until any fat in them goes rancid

      Other packaged mixes are good until either the fat goes rancid or the other ingredients oxidize.

      As you said, taste it before you waste it, but if you are eating processed packaged foods you are eating garbage made with GMOs and un-natural "All natural" ingredients.