Insiders view on the myth of pre packed vegetables date codes, food waste and what really happens.
I have been involved in the pre-packing of vegetables for multiple retailers for over 10 years and in this article would like to try and explore the convoluted world of waste and best before pack dates. There is a current push within pressure groups, celebrity chefs and anti poverty campaigners to try and encourage the use of more of the crops produced by growers and these efforts must be applauded in general terms. However you do not hear the view from within the industry other than supporting the claims of their supermarket (pay)masters.
Best before dates
Ask many, if not all, technical managers, with which the vegetable industry abounds, what backs up the dating information on retail packs and the number of different answers that come back are varied but inconclusive. Mostly the answer is ‘its what the customer specification states it uses’. If you ask the retailer the reply is ‘its what we have always used’ or ‘my predecessor did some work, I think’ or ‘its the industry standard’ or ‘its what our last suppliers technical manager told us’ or the best one ‘its what the competition uses’. What this means in reality is no one knows how they are determined or even if they are relevant. ( I am refering to prepacked fresh fruit and vegetables only, not any other types of product where there is risks of food poisoning.)
In the interests of practicality date coding a pack of produce is important from various points of view. It allows for traceabilty, required under the Food Safety Act, it allows staff to ensue stock is rotated on shelf and it should give the customer an idea of the age/freshness of the pack.
There should be no reason for a pack to have a packing date and then allow the staff in store to monitor quality on shelf and customers to take an informed choice as to whether they wish to buy. Some retailers do use this, in a hidden way, that store staff can use but would not be understood by the customer. The use of Lunar Codes is practiced by my corner convenience stores where stock turnover for fresh produce is slow. Staff make the decision when product needs to be reduced or removed from shelf. Lunar Codes work by numbering weeks of the year starting 1st Jan as week 01 to week 52 at end of the year. This is followed by day of week- 1 for Monday etc….Easy to understand if you know how to read it but it is likely not stated as such on the label and in with other numbers to make it less obvious to shoppers.
For the majority of retailers, however the use of Display Until (DU) or Best Before (BB) dates are routine.
Lets be clear that legally the are no constraints or reqirements on what you can state on the label regarding these dates. As long as the product is not rotten mouldy etc and is visually sound it can be sold. Even under British Retail Consortium Standards (BRC) the audit scheme set up by the main retailers, there are no set requirements for determining BB or DU dates, other than doing shelf life monitoring after packing and some general, rather meaningless, micro testing of shelf life samples that have been left for an arbitrary time. As long as you have done something, you pass. It still has no relevance to real life per se.
What I really do not understand is that with many vegetables and fruits the packs have short BB dates on where the product has come out of a growers store. Onions, potatoes and swedes are good examples of this. In the UK potatoes and onions are harvested in September and October and the majority of the crop stored in either ambient or refrigerated stores.
These crops are stored through to the following year, with some stored until the next seasons crops available. (To assist with this long term storage many potato and onion crops are treated in the field or in store with sprout suppressing chemicals to stop them growing during storage.) When they are packed for retail they are given a BB date that typically is between 2 to 5 days.
Now my problem with this is as follows: The potatoes that are packed this week come from the same store as those packed next week and the week after. How can they be out of date. If kept cool and in the dark they will last months. How can the BB date be only a few days? The only reason is to increase turnover of stock and and ultimately increase the customer concern and create waste. The same can be applied to onions and swedes. There is no noticable difference in quality for the majority of the storage season, for general consumption.
From my own experience most produce, stored correctly will have a life of weeks before its quality deteriorates to a point where it cannot be eaten. Now I am not suggesting we should leave all produce as long as possible before eating, but for majority of the root crops, dry allium crops ( onion garlic etc) cabbages white and red swedes parsnips, carrots can all be kept for many weeks.
So why the short BB dates? Retailers may well argue they wish to provide the freshest quality but there is another question they have to answer is why at Christmas do their specified BB dates for any given product change. So for all year they may have a 5 days after packing date for BB but at the run up to Christmas these dates will increase. For example I packed carrots for a national retailer and the usual BB date was increased from plus 4 to plus 9 days to “aid stock control and wastage” over the Christmas period.
If it can be done then why not for the rest of the year?
No there are times when shorter shelf lives are advisable, when new season crops start and freshness is very important to quality. Also leafy vegetables lettuces, greens, spinach for example do not last that long.
In my view the whole of the best before dates fiasco is driven by the need to keep stock turning over and is a complicit silence between the packers and the retailers to maintain sales at the price of wastage at the point of consumption. Open admittance by the industry must be the first step in trying to end this food system injustice.
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Mark Palmer is a fresh produce professional with 40 years in food and farming, non organic and organic, growing packing and retailing. He currently runs a business packing and preparing vegetables for local customers and you can read more via his blog www.systems4food.wordpress.com