Confusion around best-before dates is widespread, causing unnecessary food waste. And in a country that's already food insecure, binning good food is not only unconscionable, it's plain wrong.
So why are the regulators raiding retailers and confiscating foods that are still fit for consumption? It's a question food experts have asked for a while. But if the regulators of consumer protection are ignorant about science and the law, what does that say for consumer education in a country that sorely needs it?
From March 11 to 15, the National Consumer Commission (NCC) embarked on raids, along with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs and eThekwini Municipality, on a “blitz to various identified hotspots in and around Durban CBD”. The blitz formed part of the build-up to World Consumer Rights Day, aimed at “critically assess(ing) the state of consumer protection in South Africa, 10 years after the promulgation and implementation of the Consumer Protection Act”.
The NCC said KZN has “consistently ranked among the top three provinces in respect of national complaint statistics, with Durban and surrounding areas accounting for the bulk of complaints within the province”.
In the Durban CBD and Isipingo, they said they found perishable foods such as polony, chicken, chicken livers and fish on their shelves (presumably fridges), which had passed their best-before dates. In some retailers, the best-before date markings were completely removed from perishable food products.
“Most alarming in this regard was the discovery of baby food and formula, which had also passed their best-before dates,” said the NCC.
Seizing and destroying rotten meat is to be encouraged, but removing food from shelves because they had reached their best-before dates is misguided.
Trevor Hattingh, NCC spokesperson, said: “Consumers need to be aware of their rights and they should not buy perishable food items that have passed their best-before dates.
“A best-before date is what is colloquially known as an ‘expiry date’. This is the date by which the manufacturer guarantees that the product quality and safety will be at its best.
“Use-by date labels are the ones that create confusion. I believe this particular label is no longer to be used according to the National Department of Health.
“Best-before dates are not expiration dates - the world over."
Many stores specialise in selling food and goods that have reached or are close to their best-before dates and the foods are perfectly safe to eat.
Stores such as Foodies in the Western Cape and the Best Before Stores in KZN and Gauteng are operating legally, selling shelf-stable foods and other products that are close or have passed the best-before dates at a discount because those products are still fit for consumption.
Renowned food safety expert Dr Lucia Anelich said: “Shelf-stable foods, such as canned soup and flour, don't normally need the fridge. They can stand at room temperature and not spoil. If the best-before date has been exceeded it tells you it might not be as before, but the quality doesn't dip for a while. Eventually, nuts will go rancid, biscuits become soggy, coffee won't taste as fresh. But it’s definitely not a safety issue.”
She said what is a safety issue is the use-by date. “Use-by dates on perishable foods should not be exceeded, because that (food) has expired.
Best-before dates on shelf-stable foods such as sugar, flour, canned foods, etc (those not requiring refrigeration) cause much confusion among consumers, Anelich said, because they view these products no longer “safe” after the best-before date, which is not the case. “There is, therefore, much debate internationally as to whether these types of foods should have a best-before date at all.”
She said the regulators do not understand the principles of food, nor about hazard and risk.
“We have some very serious challenges ahead of us. We have regulators doing things that are not based on science or correct practice.”
What is Codex Alimentarius?
The internationally recognised collection of standards, codes of practice, guidelines, and other recommendations relating to foods, food production, and food safety is known as the Codex Alimentarius.
It defines date markings as such:
“Sell-by-Date” means the last date of offer for sale to the consumer after which there remains a reasonable storage period in the home.
“Date of Minimum Durability” (best before) means the date which signifies the end of the period during which the product will remain fully marketable and will retain any specific qualities for which tacit or express claims have been made. However, beyond the date, the food may still be perfectly satisfactory.
“Use-by Date” signifies the end of the estimated period under any stated storage conditions, after which the product probably will not have the quality attributes normally expected by the consumers. After this date, the food should not be regarded as marketable.
These foods are exempted from the durability markings: Fresh fruits and vegetables, wines, beverages containing 10% or more by volume of alcohol; bakers’ or pastry-cooks’ wares which are normally consumed within 24 hours of their manufacture; vinegar; food-grade salt; solid sugars; confectionery products consisting of flavoured and/or coloured sugars; chewing gum.
* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.