Opinion: Expiration dates

POSTED: 05/13/14 2:07 PM

We’re not sure how many consumers study the packaging of the food they buy in local supermarkets. We see quite some shoppers who just grab what they need and get out of the frigid environment that characterizes most of our supermarkets. We have always wondered why it is so cold in these stores, because it seems a big waste of energy. Maybe the purpose is the create an environment where people do not want to linger. That makes it easier to get away with all kinds of stuff. Like selling products that are over their expiration date.

Shoppers that pay a little bit more attention will have come across a forest of terms on food items, like “at least good until,”, “packaged on,” “expiration date” and “sell by date.”

What do all these dates actually mean? And how fast should consumers get rid of products with a date that is a day, a week, or more in the past?

In St. Maarten we have to deal with products that come from different jurisdictions. Let’s stick to the United States and the Netherlands for argument’s sake.

Dutch products could carry a THT-indication (ten minste houdbaar tot – at least not perishable until) or a UCD-indication (uiterste consumptie datum – final consumption date).

Producers and importers are free to set the THT-date, taking into account the way the product has to be stored and mention this on the label (like: store in a cool place). When the THT-date has passed the producer no longer guarantees the product’s quality. If the producer does not put a THR-date on his products, a retailer could also do this. They are free to set this date, but they are also responsible for the quality and the traceability of the product. There is an exception for dairy products: only the producer is allowed to print the THT-date on it.

Here is the kicker: selling products with an expired THT-date is not a violation of the commodities law as long as the product keeps its normal characteristics. It is allowed to sell a lot of products after their expiry date –cookies, canned fish and fruit, sodas, alcohol, chocolate, mayonnaise are examples. The condition is that the product does not present a danger to public health. Before the THT-date expires the producer is responsible for the product’s quality. After it expires it becomes the responsibility of the retailer. Dairy products and eggs are exempt from this rule – they should never be sold or consumed beyond their expiration date.

The UCD-date – the last day it is okay to consume a product is always printed on the product by the producer and the retailer is not free to extend it.

There is quite some discussion about these dates. State secretary Sharon Dijksma said last week that the storage life dates of rice, pasta and coffee have to be abolished. Consumers throw away unnecessary amounts of these products because they rely on the dates on these products, while in reality they keep longer.

Consumers throw away products because the true meaning of expiry dates is unclear. “At least good until means that products are good at least until the date mentioned, and often also longer,” Dijksma wrote to the parliament. “People are throwing away food unnecessary because they do not know what exactly the date on the packaging means.”

Dijksma is not the only one to tackle these dates. Parliamentarian Carla Dik-Faber (Christian union) applauds her initiative.

Outside of the parliament, an organization called Damn Food Waste is also addressing this issue. DFW fed 6,000 people last year with vegetables that otherwise would have been thrown away.

In New York, someone developed an app that enables supermarkets, restaurants and other food distributors to inform their clients about food that has to be sold fast. Clients can buy this food at a discount. The app will not only help the food distributors, but also consumers. And it will do something about food waste.

In the United States labeling is voluntary. The only items that require labeling by federal law for expiration are infant formula and some baby foods. In some states, retailers have to pull dairy products from their shelves on the expiration date.

American products could carry a “sell by” date, a “best if used before” date, a “born on” date or even a “guaranteed fresh” date, a “use by” date or a “pack” date. How to make sense of all these terms?

The sell by date tells storeowners when they have to pull a product from their shelves. If they don’t do it, don’t help them by buying these products.

The best if used before date has nothing to do with safety, but everything with quality. It is simply a recommended date for best taste. “Sour cream, for instance, is already sour but can have a zippier, fresh taste when freshly sour,” Star Lawrence writes on webmd.com.

Here is an interesting one: the born on-date. It the US it is found on beer bottles. Beer goes down in quality after three months and one of its enemies is what we have plenty of in St. Maarten: the sun. According to Paul VanLandingham, a senior faculty member at the Center for Food and Beverage Management of the Johnson&Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, light can reactivate microorganisms in beer. “That is a good reason to be more careful with beer in clear bottles, as opposed to beer in brown or green bottles.”

On to the guaranteed fresh date then. Webmd.com says this refers usually to bakery items. They’re still edible after the date, but they have passed their peak freshness.

The use by-date is a similar indication, namely to use a product by that date if consumers want to enjoy maximum quality.

The pack date is obviously the day goods are packaged or canned. Webmd.com warns that this could be tricky. Some producers use the format month-day-year, but some of them use the Julian calendar – for whatever reason. January would then read like 001-0031 and December like 334-365. Since we have a suspicious mind, we’d like to add that the pack date (certainly for for instance repackaged cheeses and meat in St. Maarten) says nothing at all about the freshness of these products at the moment of packaging. Using one’s eyes and nose critically could mean the difference between eating healthy and an expensive trip to the doctor.

What happens in the Netherlands and what happens in New York, obviously also happens in St. Maarten with food. People throw stuff away all the time, either because they bought it and then simply forgot it in the fridge until it is too late, or because they suspiciously eyed the expiry date and decided not to experiment with their own health.

There is a wonderful task here for the Ministry of Economic Affairs to join forces with distributors and retailers. If only we had one, a consumer organization could also play a part in making sure that we do not dump food items unnecessary in the rubbish container.

What would help to start with, is for people to better understand the meaning of the expiry dates, packaging dates and all the other dates we find on food products in our supermarkets.

Webmd.com has a number of simple tips for making decisions about eating or discarding food. Here we go: milk: usually fine until a week after the sell by date; eggs: okay for 3-5 weeks after putting them in the fridge; poultry and seafood: cook or freeze within a day or two; beef and pork: cook or freeze within 3 to 5 days.

Canned goods are a different story. Highly acidic stuff like tomato sauce will keep for 18 months, but low acid food like canned green beans are risk-free up to five years. Bulging cans should be discarded, no matter the expiration date, because they are home to bacteria you do not want to end up in your digestive tract.

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