From best before dates to plastic packaging, the industrial food system is not functioning for the good of our health and well-being, and here’s why…

How much significance do you attribute to the Best Before date? And why do you trust the Best Before date as an indicator of freshness?

When we buy food, we are putting our trust in the shops from which we are purchasing. By association, we put trust in the manufacturers and suppliers with which the shops do business.

Broadly speaking we expect that the products they offer us will be of good quality, and that they will not be detrimental to our health and well-being. I think it’s fair to say that most of us also don’t want our food to be produced in a way that causes suffering to other people, animals or the environment – not knowingly at least.

From farm (or factory) to fork

But what do we know about the provenance of our food? What do we know about the production of the pre-prepared soup we buy on a cold winters day, or the margarine we spread on our toast in the morning, or the frozen sausages that we bought on promotion a few weeks ago?

Unfortunately, most of us – especially us city-dwellers – have become all too ignorant of where our food came from, and how it was produced. It’s this ignorance that keeps the system ticking along.

Think about the health impact of the processing aid Hemicellulase, used by bread manufacturers to increase volume and prolong softness, which can be of fungal, soil bacteria or transgenic (GM) origin. Despite its presence in the final food product, and being a potential allergen if of a fungal origin, can legally go undeclared within the ingredients. Or think about the sheep that is transported for days over thousands of kilometres across and between continents in inhumane conditions – overcrowded, unsanitary, and with inadequate access to bedding, drinking water or feed – arriving at its destination, with some of its fellow travellers dead, due to the various stresses experienced during the epic journey.

Scratch the surface of how our food is produced, and you’ll bear witness to how the primary focus of the industrialised food system is not the health and wellbeing of the end users. Too often there is also little regard for the health and wellbeing of the people and animals involved in the creation of our processed food products – from slave labour on UK farms, to the violent mistreatment of animals. I believe our ignorance is causing great harm to us, the animals we eat, and the environment we are all dependent on.

The value of knowledge

Our ignorance of where our food comes from is a choice, especially in the age of the Internet. The way to change how the food system functions is to inform ourselves, and then lobby the retailers, the manufacturers and the producers of the food we eat, along with the politicians who are meant to represent our best interests. Calling on them all to adopt and support more sustainable and less harmful practices within food production and supply – one that better caters for our needs, and the well-being of animals and the environment.

We already see this happening to a degree, thanks to a general rise in consciousness over the past few years around the impact and unsustainable nature of our current food system. There are campaigns to reduce avoidable food waste, needless plastic packaging, sugar within processed food (although it’s important to realise that not all sugar is created equal), to name but a few, all calling for a more humane, egalitarian and sustainable food system from the grassroots level.

The price of convenience

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” said the oft quoted father of modern Western medicine, Hippocrates, who understood the role food plays in the health of our bodies and minds, and this can be extended of course to the health and well-being of the Earth we steward, and the life we share it with. But over the past few decades I believe we’ve allowed ourselves to become disconnected from our food, and to devalue it – driven in large part by our desire for convenience.

The supermarkets have played a significant role in the evolution of our current food system and food culture – one where convenience and price trumps quality and nutrition – as they have satisfied and nurtured that desire for convenience. After all, who doesn’t appreciate the opportunity to grab a cheap sandwich, and spend the rest of our lunch break in the park, basking in the sun during a long, hot British summer? They spend up to £78 million a year on advertising campaigns – all aimed at perpetuating an image of trustworthiness, and nurturing within us the belief that the supermarkets have our best interests at heart. And we have willingly put our trust and faith in them, relinquishing our decision-making processes to them.

What’s in a date?

This brings us to that question about the Best Before date, posed at the beginning of the article – about the significance we give it, and the trust we have in its accurate indication of edibility. Something that spawned from a stock control measure introduced by M&S in the 1950s, which over time has instead come to be perceived by many as an absolute measure of freshness.

In actual fact, the Best Before date is derived in an arbitrary way – it’s not based on science, but the manufacturer’s perceived timeframe for loss of quality. This can be based on lab testing, but not wanting to jeopardise the trust their customers have in their brand, they will inevitably err on the side of caution, and so instead of specifying the Best Before date to be say, a date 2 weeks in the future, they use a date 1 week in the future. This means that, assuming it has been stored appropriately, for a certain length of time after the Best Before date has passed, food is still going to be good enough to eat. Therefore, rather than relying on the date, we should instead be relying on our senses – our eyes, nose and taste, to assess the freshness.

Giving a product a short shelf-life, based on the Best Before date they’ve been given, will also ensure it benefits from prime real-estate within the supermarket’s displays and shelving, and ensure a high turnaround, thereby further incentivising the use of a short Best Before date.

All this wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for the fact that many of us are confused as to what the Best Before date represents, and that we have understandably placed a significant amount of trust in supermarkets to do right by us. With many of us now perceiving the Best Before date as an indication as to when the food can no longer be eaten, once the date is passed we unwittingly discard something that might be perfectly edible.

I think it’s fair to say that the use of Best Before date has not been to the benefit of the customer, as many of us have been throwing away perfectly edible food. Consequently, it’s not only had an impact on our pockets, but also been detrimental to the health of the environment, as the resources that have gone into growing, transporting, and storing the food also goes to waste – contributing to climate change, soil degradation, water security, biodiversity loss, and much more. All because of a date.

In the name of reducing food waste, Tesco have recently taken the measure of removing the Best Before date from around 70 fresh fruit and vegetable products, such as own-brand onions, apples and potatoes. While the Co-op has started selling produce passed their Best Before dates at a reduced price. While on the surface this is a positive move in terms of helping to reduce household food waste, the debate around date-labelling and the need to eliminate confusion has been going on for years. It therefore raises the question as to why, knowing for so long that they have been contributing to the amount of food needlessly going to waste within people’s homes, is action only being taken now, and why have the dates existed at all?

Creating change

The Best Before date may be on the way out, but without new legislation it’s likely to take some time. Until then, let’s empower ourselves and reduce the influence and impact of the Best Before date, by learning how to properly assess when food is no longer edible – such as how to tell if an egg is fresh. Let’s value food more – buy the best food we can afford, from producers that put quality, sustainability and nutrition first, and let’s waste less of it. And while we’re doing all this, let’s inform ourselves about how our food is made and where it comes from, then call on the supermarkets, manufacturers and politicians alike for greater transparency, and practices that genuinely have the customer, animal welfare, labour welfare, and the environment at their core.

Let’s work together towards creating a sustainable food system that works for the health and well-being of all of us – an ever-increasing human population, and all other life on Earth.

Chris King
I'm a documentary and portrait photographer and video producer from Ireland, but currently based in London. With the Food Is Wasted website and my exploration of the issue of avoidable food waste, I have a desire to create positive change in whatever way I can, and to whatever degree I can. You can see more of my work at chriskingphotography.com