Do the date labels on your seafood tell you about its freshness or whether it is safe to eat? What do “packaged on,” “sell by” and “best before” dates actually mean? Do all these dates and descriptions confuse you? Well, you’re not alone.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, has published a report that sheds light on the “dizzying variety” of dates and “convoluted system” of labeling in the United States. With no national food-dating standard, a patchwork of rules has arisen that will leave even food experts stumped.
“Because consumers cannot understand what factors led to the selection and setting of label dates, often they mistakenly assume that these dates are tied to food safety, whereas in reality their true function is to convey information about freshness and quality grounded in the preferences of consumers themselves and the particular brand protection practices of manufacturers,” states the report titled Dating Game: How Confusing Date Labels Lead to Food Waste In America.
The resulting confusion is generating enormous food waste. Often, people are throwing away perfectly edible food because they misinterpret the date label. That also hits consumers’ wallets: the report estimates that per capita food waste is $390 per year, putting the total food loss for a family of four at $1,560 annually. Another expert figures it costs the average family $2,275. While not all of this waste is from dating confusion, better labeling could reduce this food loss.
This problem is especially acute in the seafood industry since products come in a variety of states: frozen, fresh, smoked, cooked, canned and so on. Shelf life also varies depending on the fish species, along with other factors like storage temperature and handling. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a Food Code that addresses date labeling requirements for shellfish. Half of U.S. states regulate date labels on shellfish.
MAP: Date Labeling by States
In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency enforces national dating standards on seafood labels. Live shellfish, for example, must indicate date of processing, and either a “best before” date or the date of harvesting. Fish products heat-treated but not ready-to-eat must also include a “best before” date. Fresh or previously frozen seafood pre-packaged on the retail premises must also include a “packaged on” date with information on its durable life or a “best before” date with storage instructions.
ThisFish visited five retail grocery chains and randomly sampled date labeling on fresh, frozen and smoked product. We found fresh fish with both “best before” and “packaged on” dates. In one case, live mussels had a “packaged on” but no “best before” date, violating labeling rules. Smoked fish had “best before / freeze by” dates. Some frozen product had no dates, but did have lot codes which are likely traceable to a production date.
Of all the dates related to a seafood product, the harvest date is the most important since the shelf life of most fish is based on the day it was harvested. Unfortunately, many fish boats stay out to sea for multiple days storing fish on ice. When unloaded and graded, the fish are mixed and aren’t separated by harvest date. As well, unless the fish is traceable back to the boat, this date often doesn’t follow the fish to the restaurant or retail outlet. For net fisheries, the “soak time” is also important for quality. On the Great Lakes, fish harvesters may leave their gillnets in the water for days, reducing the quality of their catch. Fish caught in the net may be dead for a day or more before being pulled aboard a boat and iced.
Another challenge is food literacy: people just don’t know the meaning of the various dates (See Glossary of Terms below). In a grocery store, pre-packaged fish often has a very recent “packaged on” date, which many consumers mistakenly believe is related to its freshness. Yet, as you’ll see, this date has little to do with freshness and food safety.
Retailers typically purchase seafood from distributors who, in turn, purchase it from processors or directly from fish harvesters. The date on which the fish was packaged in the grocery store doesn’t provide us with any information about when it was harvested or how it was handled.
LABEL: What does "best before" and "packaged on" actually mean?
Some grocery clerks and restaurants servers may even unwittingly mislead customers because they lack adequate knowledge about the seafood supply chain. When a customer asks if fish is fresh, a common reply is “Yes, it came in today.” However, the delivery date to the store or restaurant has little to no bearing on quality or freshness. The fish delivered today is likely from the same batch that was delivered the day before. That’s especially true for species with a long shelf life. Halibut, for example, can maintain its shelf life for 17 to 21 days if properly stored.
A distributor in Toronto, for example, might receive one large delivery of Pacific halibut from a processor in BC and distribute it to retailers and restaurants for several days. The fish delivered on Monday is just as fresh as the fish delivered on Thursday, since it all came from the same boat landing on the same day and was shipped to the distributor together.
One frustrated urban distributor told ThisFish how some chefs demand daily delivery, believing they are getting fresher fish. In fact, these chefs are likely just forcing trucks to make unnecessary deliveries, adding to product costs, urban air pollution and carbon emissions.
How did we get to this state of affairs? Urbanization has led consumers to be divorced from growing their own food or knowing where it comes from. Modern transportation also means that fresh fish can travel faster to consumers farther away. Over time, we slowly lost personal knowledge of freshness, quality and shelf life. As we began to eat more packaged and processed foods by the 1970s, consumers had to rely on assurances from retailers that their food was fresh.
Grocery stores soon voluntarily adopted date labels in response to growing consumer interest in freshness. Indeed, supermarkets used date labels as a promotional strategy to attract customers. Despite attempts to pass legislation to standardize labeling in the United States, it has never happened, leaving a confusing patchwork of dates.
TIMELINE: Food Date Labelling
So, what is the solution?
In the United States, the National Resources Defense Council recommends that “sell by” dates be made invisible to consumers and that government and industry establish “a reliable, coherent, and uniform consumer-facing dating system.” This standardized system would include quality-based and safety-based date labels, a transparent method for selecting dates and increased use of safe handling instructions on packaged food.
However, even with national standards in place, such as in Canada, two other solutions could help reduce confusion that leads to food waste.
First, education programs need to be in place to improve food literary, especially among kids and young adults. Knowledge of date labels can empower people to make more informed choices about their purchases and whether to throw away food.
Second, traceability can provide more detailed information on dates and handling to all businesses in the supply chain and even consumers. Better information would improve the accuracy of determining the shelf life of a product, reducing spoilage and unnecessary wastage.
However you look at it, our current date label system has become woefully out-dated.
Definitions of terms related to seafood date labels:
- best before date: the day after which the quality of the product begins to decline below what the seafood business considers optimum. The best before date isn’t related to food safety.
- harvest date: the day that the seafood was taken out of the water either live or fresh.
- landing date: the day the seafood is brought to shore and typically sold to a buyer or processor
- packaged on date: the day the seafood was pre-packaged in a retail outlet.
- production/processing date: the day the seafood undergoes some sort of transformation such as portioning, freezing, cooking, smoking, cleaning, packaging, boxes, etc.
- soak time: the amount of time a net or trap remains in the water before being pulled aboard a fishing vessel.