It’s time to stop the obsession with use-by dates and trust our noses instead

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Come the end of this month, use-by dates on milk will be out at Morrison’s, with customers instead being left to sniff it for proof of life instead. Packaging will still carry best-before dates as a guide, but the rest is now in buyers’ hands – a move the retailer believes will reduce the 490 million pints wasted each year. 

“Good quality, well-kept milk has a good few days life after normal ‘use-by’ dates, and we think it should be consumed, not tipped down the sink,” says Ian Goode, senior milk buyer at Morrisons. The retailer has already scrapped use-by dates across some of its own-brand yogurt and hard cheese ranges.

Milk – the third most-binned food in Britain, after potatoes and bread – takes up a sizeable chunk of the food we waste, amounting to a total of 6.6 million tonnes every year.

The prospect of aisles full of customers nostril-deep down a milk bottle doesn’t immediately appeal, but the point does: labels are at best a guide to when we should be eating food by and, for the most part, the proof is in the (expired) pudding. Fruit and veg, grains, jam, tinned food, sweets and pretty much anything you’d find in the pantry is fair game, where I’m concerned – the use-by date often bearing no relation to the longevity in what I’m about to consume. Eggs, yogurt, falafel: I’m sure the labelling is close enough, in the main, but seeing and smelling produce in your hands is always going to be more accurate than the machine auto-forming a “best-before” days, weeks or months before that item even reaches the shelves. I wouldn’t dish anything past its “best” to others – I know just how deep this squeamishness runs – but I see these labels as akin to the step counter built into smartphones; fine enough information to have, but ultimately just numbers unlikely to provide earth shattering insight. 

“There was a time when you wouldn’t get best-before labels on everything and people still managed to stay alive,” says Chet Sharma, chef patron of BiBi in Mayfair. He spent last night doing battle with his wife over whether to bin the out-of-date sour cream; having grown up in a household where curdled milk was made into paneer, he believes there’s “very little, from a domestic viewpoint, that can’t be saved”. From the “soggy old carrot at the back of the fridge” that can be boiled down for stock, bread that can “quite happily be in the oven overnight at a low temperature for breadcrumbs” and the mould encroaching on the edges of the last vestiges of the Christmas cheeseboard that can simply be cut off, it’s “very easy to see when these things have gone bad or turned”.

Still, people are “very, very scared” about consuming food beyond its label, he thinks. Use-by dates were reportedly first introduced in Marks & Spencer’s storerooms in the Fifties, before making it to shelves in 1970. Best-before dates pertain to the quality of the item, meaning the lettuce might have wilted a touch but won’t pose any health risks, while use-by dates are meant to prevent potential illness. Though warnings on packaging have been around for a relatively short period, they have become fundamental to grocery purchasing; the Food Standards Agency warns that “after the use-by date, don’t eat, cook or freeze your food. The food could be unsafe to eat or drink, even if it… looks and smells fine”. They also warn that the sniff test is not to be trusted, as this does not necessarily mean “it’s safe to eat” – particularly with food that can cause poisoning, such as meat, fish or seafood. 

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