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A trend to remove “best before” dates from food packaging has the potential to not only reduce food waste but also grocery bills, according to one food consultancy.

In recent years, British retail chains such as Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Co-Op have eliminated best-before dates on hundreds of items, primarily fruit and vegetables, in an effort to cut down on avoidable food waste.

If Canadian grocery stores followed suit, we may notice a decline in food inflation, according to Martin Gooch, chief executive officer of Value Chain Management International, a global consultancy firm focused on food. He said research has shown avoidable waste can push the cost of groceries by up to 15 per cent in some cases.

“Someone ultimately pays for [food waste],” Mr. Gooch said, citing the cost of disposal as one factor. “That person will invariably be the consumer.”

Earlier this month, Statistics Canada reported another record high for food inflation. Groceries rose by 9.9 per cent in July from the same month last year, while restaurant bills climbed 7.3 per cent. (Overall inflation during the period was 9.2 per cent.)

But Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, isn’t so sure Canadians would benefit.

“I think it would probably eliminate more opportunities to save money,” he said.

Without best-before dates, he reasoned, grocery stores could stop offering customers deals on items that aren’t as fresh. The balance of power between consumers and grocers would shift – and not in the public’s favour, Prof. Charlebois said.

However, when Tesco scrapped “best before” labels from more than a hundred items in 2018, it didn’t stop offering discounts on less fresh items.

The debate over the economic consequences of best-before dates comes on the heels of a new report from Prof. Charlebois and Dalhousie’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab that found the majority of Canadians oppose scrubbing those labels – though the sentiment varies widely, depending on the food in question.

The survey, a collaboration with Angus Reid, showed that 62 per cent of consumers are against eliminating best-before dates on food packaging. However, 66 per cent would be open to buying produce without that information. Only 15 per cent of respondents said they’d risk purchasing a dairy product missing that sticker.

People often confuse best-before dates with expiry dates, which only appear on a handful of items, such as baby formula. Best-before dates simply indicate a product’s freshness, not whether it’s safe to eat.

“It’s not really based on science … I see best-before dates as planned obsolescence for food,” said Prof. Charlebois, referencing a term often used to describe manufactured goods that are specifically designed to not last very long.

He blamed the food industry for overusing these labels and sometimes slapping them on products that can last for decades, such as salt and honey.

“I drank a litre of milk a month after the best-before date, and I was fine because it was unopened,” he noted. But did he use the sniff test, a popular way of checking for quality, according to the study? “Yes, of course.” (However, it’s important to note most micro-organisms that cause food-borne illness do not change the smell or appearance of food.)

Once you’ve left the store, making sure to actually eat everything you bought will also naturally save you money. The average Canadian household lets about $1,300 in food go to waste, according to Mr. Gooch.

“As consumers, we’ve become somewhat addicted to best-before dates,” he said. “Dates drive our lives.”

Produce, yogurt and bakery items are frequently thrown out well before they’ve spoiled, he noted.

Every year, Canada produces roughly 11.2 million tonnes of edible food waste, according to a joint report by Value Chain Management International and Second Harvest, the country’s largest food rescue organization.

Removing best-before dates from certain items won’t solve the country’s problem with food waste, but it would help, said Mr. Gooch. As would, he added, a tax incentive encouraging grocery stores to donate food before it goes to waste.

With a file from Ann Hui

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