Science - August 26, 2009

One third of our food gets binned

In the Netherlands alone about four billion euros’ worth of food is chucked out per year: one third of all the fresh food produced. It’s the same story all over Europe.

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It doesn’t have to be like that. A lot of food is discarded unnecessarily.
 
The De Bruin family are having breakfast together as usual. The kids tuck in to their muesli with yoghurt until Dad spots an alarming fact: the yoghurt is three days past its date. So out it goes, including what was already in the kids’ bowls. In consternation, Dad proceeds to inspect the fridge and throw out milk and vacuum packed ham that’s one day over the ‘best before’ date.
Every year about four billion euros’ worth of food is wasted in the Netherlands. Research by the National Institute for budgeting education shows that young people throw away the most food: about 180 euros’ worth per person per year. Elderly people waste the least food, only thirty euros’ worth a year. The catering branch is another big food waster.
 
Inedible
Professor Marcel Zwietering of the Food microbiology chair group thinks food is most often thrown out because it’s past the date on the packaging. And often for no good reason, because the food is rarely spoiled or inedible.
‘Both the dates used nowadays, ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ are useful but they give different information. The ‘use by’ date is about food safety and it’s best to stick to it. ‘Best before is harder to interpret. It has much less to do with food safety and more to do with quality and taste’, Zwietering explains. ‘The ‘best before’ date gives you an idea how fresh the food is, and that’s useful.’ Most products with a ‘best before’ date can be used well after it.
 
Under EU law most food products must have a date to indicate their shelf life. Exceptions are wine, vinegar, salt, sugars and fresh fruit and vegetables. The British Minister of Environment thinks most consumers don’t understand the dates. He’d like to scrap the ‘best before’ date to reduce food wastage. Few food experts agree. ‘If the consumer doesn’t understand something, you should explain it better, not take it away. That’s a weak response’, Zwietering asserts. ‘Research shows that half the consumers do understand the ‘best before’ date. That’s not bad.’ Anne-Corine Vlaardingerbroek of the Central Bureau for the food industry agrees. She thinks modern consumers want to know what they’re buying, and the ‘best before’ date gives them information about freshness. ‘It’s important to inform consumers. Scrapping the ‘best before’ date is not a solution.’
 
In that case, how can we prevent such massive and needless food waste? Marcel Zwietering suggests that supermarkets should sell smaller portions, but in the end the responsibility lies with the consumer. ‘Consumers should make a conscious effort not to buy too much. If the fridge is not too full you don’t forget things so easily. A good ‘first in first out’ storage system helps enormously too.’
 
Use-by and best-before dates
Two kinds of dates are used in Europe: ‘best before’ is about quality and taste, while ‘use by’ is more pressing and tells you whether a product is still safe. ‘Best before’ is on a lot of dairy products, conserves and packaged meats, whereas fresh meat and fish have ‘use by’ dates.
 

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