When two-thirds of consumers don’t know how to pick a ripe peach, it’s not surprising that they also have a hard time telling when fruits and vegetables have passed their prime. 

Enter “best before” and “best by” dates on fresh produce. 

Designed to make it easier for consumers to judge the freshness, they often are misinterpreted, resulting in perfectly good produce going to landfills and compost.  

I know I’ve encountered this issue — at length — from consumer questions in online forums. “Is this still OK to eat?” or a variation comes up so often that I’ve had to mute several of the Facebook food and cooking groups I follow to save myself from engaging in too much online debate. 

That confusion, and the result, have led Tesco PLC, one of the largest grocers in the United Kingdom, to remove “best before” verbiage from its packaged fresh produce. 

“We know some consumers may be confused by the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates on food, and this can lead to perfectly edible items being thrown away before they need to be discarded,” Mark Little, Tesco’s head of food waste, said in a statement. 

But will this initiative catch on this side of the pond? 
 
This problem is not unique to the UK. Consumers often mistake “use-by” or “best-by” dates on produce packages as a food safety message, which they are not, said Kathy Means, vice president of industry relations for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. 

“Use-by” date standardization has the highest potential economic effect on food waste reduction, according to ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to researching solutions to food waste in the U.S. 

“It is important that consumers understand what the dates mean,” Means said. “With fresh produce, the consumer can usually tell at the store whether something is fresh. The date may help them understand they’ll have some shelf life when they get the produce at home.” 

I’m a fan of the tried and true “sniff test,” or just buying with my eyes, which is what Tesco says customers do already, but it can be challenging when it comes to packaged and fresh-cut produce.  

“Many customers have told us that they assess their fruit and vegetables by the look of the product rather than the ‘best before’ date code on the packaging,” Little said in a statement. 

“Use-by” date standardization has the highest potential economic effect on food waste reduction, according to ReFED, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to researching solutions to food waste in the U.S. 

Jackie Suggitt, director of multistakeholder initiatives for ReFED, said the food and grocery industry is working toward standardization of date labeling, but the only federal regulation exists in infant formula — and that’s based on nutrient content, not safety. 

Suggitt said the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have worked together to provide two standard definitions, “best if used by” indicating quality, and “use by” indicating safety, but even with the industry adoption, it’s still up to businesses to decide. 

While Tesco’s move received a lot of positive press from the food waste angle, I’m not sure U.S. retailers are ready to make sweeping changes like this. 

It’s important, however, that we look at what these dates are telling U.S. consumers, as packaged produce continues to grow in popularity on the shelf.

 

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