Expiration dates lead to a massive waste of food and money

HAMILTON, Ontario — Have “best before” labels on food reached their expiration date? Researchers from McMaster University say these arbitrary tags on your groceries don’t paint an accurate picture of when it’s time to throw out old food. In a study, they explain how several new packaging products could soon change the way consumers check for food spoilage — and save money at the same time.

Published journal Nature Reviews Bioengineering, the team described several new inventions that would allow food packaging to actually signal when their contents are contaminated with bacteria. However, one of the biggest obstacles in this packaging shift is the price.

Despite researchers estimating that it would only cost pennies to add this smart technology to each bag or box food comes in, food manufacturers are reluctant to tack on extra costs to already rising grocery prices. The McMaster team adds that producers are content to stick with the age-old “expiration date” on all their goods, rather than raise prices on shoppers again.

So, is this a case of being penny-wise and dollar-foolish? The study authors think so.

Their study argues that smart packaging will end up saving consumers more money by cutting down on food waste. Along with protecting shoppers from eating spoiled or rotten products, consumers would be accurately able to judge when it’s time to throw something away, instead of listening to the best before label.

“On the one hand, people want to have safe food to eat. On the other, they don’t want to pay more for their food, because prices are high already and seem only to be climbing higher,” says the paper’s corresponding author Tohid Didar, a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur, in a media release.

“We are eager to make people aware of the challenges that exist, and start a conversation between researchers, policy makers, corporations and consumers work together to come up with solutions for such challenges.”

What’s wrong with expiration dates?

If you’ve ever been grocery shopping, you’ve seen all sorts of tags like this. Whether they say “best before” or “consume by,” food producers are letting you know when this product is no longer at its freshest — and when to put it in the garbage.

However, the new study explains that these labels are very conservative in their estimates, printing dates that are fairly arbitrary when it comes to food freshness. Simply put, producers play it extremely safe and write down a date that will ensure you won’t get sick from eating bad food.

The problem, according to the McMaster team, is that the food is often still fresh and ready to eat. This leads to massive amounts of food waste — and wasted money. Didar points out that in Canada alone, shoppers waste roughly $40 billion each year by throwing away food. That’s more per capita than the United States or the United Kingdom.

Uneaten spoiled vegetables are thrown in the trash
A new study argues that smart packaging will end up saving consumers more money by cutting down on food waste. (© Fevziie – stock.adobe.com)

4 inventions that could replace expiration dates

Since 2018, McMaster engineers and biochemists have been working on a series of inventions aimed at replacing the classic best-before label. These packaging changes would be able to detect harmful growth in products and warn customers that the food is no longer safe. Those inventions include:

  • Sentinel Wrap: A plastic wrapping that detects and visibly signals when meat, cheese, or produce goes bad.
  • A hand-held test that produces real-time results, allowing food sellers to spot and throw out spoiled goods before they’re sold.
  • Lab-on-a-package: A tiny, self-activating test incorporated into a tray of chicken, fish, or meat. It produces a visible signal when a product has gone bad.
  • A sprayable, food-safe gel composed of beneficial, organic bacteriophages. They eliminate harmful bacteria that cause food contamination.

Researchers say their inventions all detect the most common culprits of bacterial outbreaks and food recalls, such as Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli. Still, changing the entire food industry and getting them to agree to shift their packaging methods remains a challenge, the study authors admit.

“It’s one thing to do research in the lab, publish papers and file patents, but it’s another to have a product that’s tangible — that people can use,” says the paper’s lead author Shadman Khan, a PhD candidate and Vanier Scholar in Didar’s lab.

“We are building a collaborative network with government regulators and industrial partners. That is allowing us to see the big-picture issues and adapt to what we learn will and won’t work.”

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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