The terms “sell by” and “use by” are likely to be replaced in the coming years with the new, voluntary term “best if used by” on many food products.
One reason for the upcoming labeling change for expiration dates is that all the different terms currently used have caused widespread confusion. Consumers have not always been clear on exactly what the expiration date term means and whether food is safe to eat. Retailers have not always been sure about what the dates mean either and have been unclear as to when products should be taken off the shelf.
As a result, many food items have been tossed as waste when they were still perfectly edible, healthy, and marketable. That includes grab-and-go foods, which have become increasingly popular on college and university campuses.
The hope is that ending expiration date confusion will be a first step in reducing costly food waste.
Food service changes
In 2009, the Sustainable Endowments Institute reported that 42 per cent of the schools and universities it tracked had eliminated trays in food service areas. By 2013, that number had jumped to 75 per cent.
Colleges and universities have also changed the types of food they serve students and staff. They are moving away from buffets and large commercial kitchens, which can be costly, labour-intensive, and result in significant amounts of food waste. Instead, they are moving toward to “grab-and-go” (GNG) food.
GNG food grows
GNG food refers to prepackaged food that is ready to eat and requires little or no retailer or customer preparation.
Initially, GNG foods were regarded as second-class meal offerings — a perception that was fueled in part by the fact that the labels placed on these food products provided little, if any, information about the product. However, in recent years, GNG food has gone much more upscale and is now found even in high-end hotels.
GNG food growth over the years has been significant. That may be because there are more, healthy, tasty options versus what is traditionally offered in cafeterias and school food courts. Also, selecting GNG food items is fast, convenient, and often less expensive than more traditional food offerings. Additionally, improved labeling systems have contributed to consumer trust and confidence in selecting GNG food.
Labeling provides transparency
Food labeling systems are all about transparency, as they offer customers the following:
- A list of the ingredients used to make the product;
- Whether the ingredients contain any food allergens (Health Canada requires food manufacturers to clearly label products that contain “priority allergens,” such as peanuts);
- Consistency in how information about the food product is presented, making it easier for the consumer to make a more effective purchasing decision; and
- The expiration date of the food item.
If the terms used to describe expiration dates are clarified, expect to see more colleges and universities, and other locations, offer GNG food. There are many benefits: cost savings, energy savings (no food preparation), reduced food waste, and a wide selection of healthy food options for students and staff, available quickly and conveniently.
Ed Sharek is product development and sourcing manager for DayMark Safety Systems, a manufacturer of grab-and-go food-labeling terminals that help the food service industry efficiently label food products.