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Most Canadians oppose eliminating ‘best before’ dates on food products to reduce food waste: Report

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The Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, in partnership with Angus Reid, is releasing a new report on “best before” dates and food waste. 

It has been suggested numerous times that “best before” dates will generate more food waste. Consumers will be influenced by dates shown on food packages, whether they are expiry or “best before” dates. In recent months, several grocers in Europe like Morrison’s and Waitrose have opted to eliminate “best before” dates with the intention to reduce food waste. Despite the fact that our food safety regime here in Canada is a little different, our lab wanted to know how important these dates are to Canadians, and if consumers here would be willing to purchase products without them.

When Canadians are asked how often they look at “best before” dates, frequency will vary greatly depending on the food category. While a total of 73 per cent of Canadians will always look at “best before” dates for dairy products, only 32 per cent will look at dates for packaged foods/non-perishables. Women and older consumers are more likely to always look at “best before” dates.

The survey probed how consumers consider “best before” dates when purchasing or consuming different food products. While a total of 44 per cent of Canadians have bought a discounted food product for which the “best before” date had passed, 78 per cent consumed food after its “best before” date had passed. A total of 65 per cent has thrown out unopened food because its “best before” date had passed.

Consumers have different ways to manage risks and will do different things to determine whether a product is safe to eat or not. While 28 per cent of Canadians will look for the presence of mold, 25 per cent will rely on “best before” dates as an indicator of food safety. A total of 20 per cent will rely on smell, and 17 per cent will rely on the appearance of the food product itself.  It is important to note that most microorganisms that can make people sick do not change the smell or the look of the food.

“The results of the survey open up some rich perspective into Canadian consuming habits. It really depends on the sub-category of food, with greater perceived risk of animal-based foods and prepared foods perishability, which can carry greater health threats if the items are going bad,” said Dr. Mark Juhasz, Research Associate at Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab. “There is a broad spectrum of Canadian consumer habits taking place, some more inclined towards trusting the food product, and others more risk-averse. This is a fertile ground for more research, maybe even comparing perceptions of ‘best before’ compared to expiry dates.”

The results really point to food safety contradictions in Canada. While many Canadians are willing to buy and consume food after the “best before” date has passed, many will throw away unopened food products.

The willingness to buy a product in Canada without a “best before” date will again vary greatly, depending on the food category. While a total of 68 per cent of Canadians would be willing to buy produce without an expiry date, only 15 per cent would be willing to do the same with dairy products. There are not many statistical variations between provinces, but men are more likely to be willing to buy food products without a “best before’ on them, except for produce. Younger consumers are more willing to buy food without a “best before” date, except for dairy.

When asked specifically about whether Canadians support eliminating “best before” dates to reduce food waste, most Canadians are against such a measure. Only 27 per cent of Canadians either strongly support or support eliminating “best before” dates. Quebec is where the level of support for such a measure is the highest, at 36 per cent, followed by Saskatchewan at 28 per cent. The lowest support is in Alberta, at 22 per cent.

“In light of these results, it is obvious that the food safety culture in Canada is quite strong,” stated Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab. “Unlike for grocers in Europe, removing ‘best before’ dates will likely be viewed as an unpopular gesture, at least for now,” said Charlebois. 

According to the Global Food Security Index, Canada is the 7th most food secure country in the world. But when it comes to food safety, Canada is 1st in the world, followed by the United States and Ireland. The focus on food safety in Canada has been historically higher in comparison to other countries.

Full report here: https://www.dal.ca/sites/agri-food.html

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