Calls for 'best before’ dates on food packaging to be scrapped

Best Before date on prepared food packaging
Have 'best before' dates passed their own 'use by' date? (Getty)

Getting rid of 'best before' dates on food packaging would save the world billions a year by curbing food waste and stopping food poisoning outbreaks.

That’s the suggestion of researchers who have invented an alternative.

So-called ‘smart packaging’ would signal to consumers when food has actually gone off. A warning sign on the package would appear when the packaging detected the signs of food poisoning bacteria, preventing consumers throwing away edible food.

Switching to smart packaging would cost just a few pence per package, but would have enormous effects on food waste - which currently costs the world an estimated $1trn (£801bn) a year, with households wasting a billion meals a day in 2022 according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The current practice of marking fresh foods with a "best before" or "consume by" date is arbitrary and the dates are far too conservative, the researchers say, often causing perfectly safe food to be thrown away. This imposes huge costs that producers and consumers are already paying for, whether directly or indirectly.

The researchers from McMaster University have invented multiple different ways to detect spoiled food including Sentinel Wrap: plastic wrapping that can detect and visibly signal when contents such as meat, cheese or produce has gone bad.

Another lab-on-a-package is a tiny, self-activating test incorporated into a tray of chicken, fish or meat, for example, which produces a visible signal when a product has gone bad

Aperture ring on a gold-colored tin.
Best before and use by dates are often needlessly conservative. (Getty)

The monitoring technologies are made to read biochemical signals from common culprits in spoilage, such as listeria, salmonella and E.coli, using readily adaptable platforms.

McMaster researchers have also invented a sprayable, food-safe gel composed of beneficial, organic bacteriophages, which eliminates harmful bacteria that cause food contamination.

Smart packaging would not only dramatically reduce food waste, but also reduce the costs associated with food poisoning outbreaks.

But food companies have so far been reluctant to use the technology due to the up-front costs.

Corresponding author Tohid Didar, a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur, said: "On the one hand, people want to have safe food to eat.

“On the other, they don't want to pay more for their food, because prices are high already and seem only to be climbing higher.

"We are eager to make people aware of the challenges that exist, and start a conversation between researchers, policymakers, corporations and consumers work together to come up with solutions for such challenges."

The idea of ‘best before’ dates has become controversial, with both Waitrose and Marks and Spencers removing them from some food products in recent years.

The concept is relatively new, having been introduced by Marks and Spencer in 1973 as the ‘sell by’ date, accompanied by a TV advert starring Twiggy.

In the 1980s, this evolved into ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates.

Today, retailers are advised to only use ‘Use By’ dates where there is a specific food safety reason to do so.