Almost a third of Belgian consumers do not understand the difference between 'best before' and 'use by' labels, say researchers, who warn their findings have implications for food safety and wastage.
The study published in Food Control looked at data from a 907-strong online survey on the topic of shelf life labels and dates on pre-packed foods including refrigerated fish, meat, ready-to-eat meals, deli salads and shelf stable cereals and bread.
Findings showed that while a majority of respondents (80.1%) were familiar with ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ labels, 30% did not know what the difference between each was.
In addition to this, only half of consumers use these shelf life labels to assess the edibility of a food product. Instead, findings showed that a majority of consumers relied on visual and odour checks ahead of labels and around half also used tasting to test foods.
“This survey shows that the intended purpose of the shelf life label framework is not thoroughly understood by Belgian consumers. The limited understanding and application of this framework can be considered as a lack of food safety knowledge,” the researchers wrote.
The lack of consumer understanding about each label, they said, is probably even higher because the survey only asked if they knew the difference, not whether they understood the concepts.
The researchers said these findings fitted into wider EU research that has previously highlighted problems with shelf life label interpretation.
Eating risks and food waste
The researchers said that understanding of the EU shelf life labelling system was important, both from a food safety point of view and minimization of food waste.
“Eating food products after the ‘use by’ date implicates consuming food without food safety guarantee while discarding food products after a limited period after their ‘best before’ date often is a waste of food that is still acceptable for consumption.”
The survey showed that 14.2% would eat refrigerated fish after the shelf life date and 23.9% would eat meat. The researchers said this was potentially dangerous for consumers as “there is a risk for outgrowth of pathogenic bacteria to unacceptable levels” in both fish and meats that have spoiled.
Findings showed that for ready-to-eat products such as deli-meats, mayonnaise-based deli-salads and ready-to-eat meals, “a substantial proportion of consumers” were prepared to consume products after the shelf life dates. Again, the researchers said that while pathogen outbreaks varied in foods, each ready-to-eat product could be considered a risk outside the shelf life date.
However, in the case of breads and opened UHT milk, the researchers found that the opposite was true, with consumers contributing to food waste by discarding products when they remained safe to eat.
Government label education campaigns needed
The researchers said that government intervention was to improve consumer understanding of labels. Promotional campaigns that aimed to explain the labelling system should be considered, they said.
They said that increased understanding of shelf life labels and corresponding consumer behaviour in respecting shelf life dates and labels should, in time, lead to reduced food safety risk but also reduced food waste which will contribute to a more sustainable food supply chain.
Source: Journal of Food Control
Published March 2014, Volume 37, Pages 85-92. Online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.foodcont.2013.08.043
“Understanding and attitude regarding the shelf life labels and dates on pre-packed food products by Belgian consumers”
Authors: SV. Boxstael, F. Devlieghere, D. Berkvens, A. Vermeulen and M. Uyttendaele