BEST BEFORE DATES ARE A GOOD THING RIGHT?
They tell you when food is no longer good in an instant. I go to a shop, pick up a perishable item, look on the label and instantly know if it is good or not. That’s got to be good?
Recently I’ve become aware of best before dates and that they are driving the wrong behaviour in consumers, shops, and sadly producers.
WHAT DATE TO PICK?
This is all starts when I brewed my first beer. What “best before” date should I set? Food labelling requires you to have a date for beer, and shops expect to manage stock to this date (reducing stock as it gets near or even past this date).
Initially I had absolutely no frame of reference. Best practise varied massively, and if I had problems I didn’t want too much stock hanging around. So I put a mega-conservative date of six month from the date of bottling.
FAST FORWARD SIX MONTHS
The six months past and I’ve not had a single beer problem. I’ve realised I’ve been extremely conservative and now started to get customer (business) feedback. Beer was being reduced and on promotion simply to shift it. One customer was actually throwing this stuff away!
SAFER THAN WATER
Beer is naturally acidic and many nasty pathogens can’t live in it (E. coli, Salmonella etc.). Beer is boiled pre-fermentation to kill of most living organisms, and if bad bacteria were living in the beer it would turn it to vinegar making the beer taste sour.
A few weeks ago I purchased a beer that was two years beyond its best before date. It tasted amazing and I wasn’t put off by the 2016 best before date!
Devitera beer is bottled conditioned which means that live yeast is in the bottle to give natural CO2. It isn’t filtered or pasteurised, to give it longer life, it is alive. My beers actually taste better today than it did yesterday because it is maturing (I’m exaggerating but you get the point).
WHO ARE BEST BEFORE DATES GOOD FOR?
So I stop and think seriously about best before dates. Who are they good for? They drive a behaviour in consumers that a product one second past the best before is bad. That it isn’t any good. If you buy something near the best before it may not last long. You may even buy it cheaper.
Shops discount the product, still making a profit, to move it along to those oh so risky people who would actually dare buy something that is now “bad”. We expect fresh and the shops give the perception of just that; “Look all our best before dates are still good”.
Big shops with high footfall don’t have to worry too much. Produce turns over regularly, and if some lines don’t they can afford to reduce it. They also have the footfall to move it too! If it doesn’t move they can waste it and right it off against their profits (I remember working in a shop and at the end of the day tipping gallons of perfectly good milk down the drain).
For small shops the story is different. They may not have the footfall. Their reputation may be based on higher quality and therefore may not want the perception of “outdated” stock. They may not have the space to display it separately. They may not have the financial means to shoulder high-volumes of wastage.
For producers the story is also mixed. Large producers except that this is part of doing business so manage production to reduce the risk, have processes to deal with returns. They may even “reprocess” returns to resale.
For smaller producers this is much harder to deal with. You may not have the processes to reduce the likelihood or deal with large volumes of returns. You almost certainly don’t have the ability to “reprocess”. The bottom line is….well just that. It hits your bottom line!
SO IS BEST BEFORE DATES A GOOD THING?
I started by asking is best before dates a good thing? As I write this I think in today’s society there is nowhere to hide. The consumer will not tolerate bad produce and will call out offenders quickly (just look at twitter).
We are almost certainly wasting perfectly good produce. We are also probably paying big shops for the “right” best before. I think it’s time to change our attitudes to “best before” dates. Look beyond the packaging and smell our produce. If it looks and smells ok use our instincts.
If it’s a beer open it and try it. Remember people have been doing that for 1000’s of years!