Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So for reasons that are about to become clear, I decided to go through a whole bunch of the packaged food that I bought at the beginning of the pandemic to see what has passed its best before date. And then I decided to eat it as long as it was past its best before date. So here this is a Welches mixed fruit snack. It was best before March 23rd of this year, which means my daughter’s going to be mad that I’ve been feeding her these the past few months, but she shouldn’t be because it tastes fine.
I had no idea that these things even had a best before date. And if I bothered to look for it before today, I might have thrown them away. And I mean, according to the numbers, most of you would have done the same. Every product that we eat now has a best before date, chips, candy, water, rice, everything. And most of us take the best before date to mean expires on. And that’s how we end up with this.
News Clip: According to a new UN report on food waste, some 17% of the food produced globally each year is wasted and amounts to nearly a billion tons of food that goes straight to the landfill. And turns out Canadians are particularly bad offenders. The average Canadian wasting 79 kilograms of food per year in their own homes. That’s more than the average American.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We can’t say for sure what percentage of Canada’s food waste is from throwing out food that we believe has gone bad, but it is a significant amount. And Canadians waste a lot of food. If you are of a certain age, you might remember, “When in doubt, throw it out,” a well meaning campaign that desperately needs a counterpoint if we are going to make a dent in the amount of perfectly good food that we toss away. So how do we do that? How do we get manufacturers to buy in, and governments, and average Canadians? Are you ready to start ignoring the best before dates on your food and instead using your own good judgment? That’s the only way we can start to change this. These fruit snacks are really good.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Lori Nikkel is the CEO of Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue organization, and she is also on the Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council. Hey, Lori.
Lori Nikkel: Hey, Jordan, how are you?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m good. Maybe we can start with the conversation about expiry dates and best before dates. Where did they come from and what was their initial purpose?
Lori Nikkel: Well, you know, there’s very little data on where they came from to be honest. There’s an old story about Al Capone having a family member that got sick on milk. And then he purchased a milk plant and lobbied for the government to put best before dates on things. But in fact, the most comprehensive data we can find is it was introduced by Marks and Spencers, a United Kingdom grosser in the 1950s for their store rooms, and it made it way onto shelves 1970s. So that was back in the UK and in Canada and the States, we’re looking about the 1970s and our understanding is it had to do with our food as being far more processed than it had been in the past. And consumers were getting much further away from where that food originated from. That’s where we believe it started from. But finding data on it is really quite difficult.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s really interesting. How does that origin story, if you want to call it that, although it’s kind of unknown, how does that compare with how best before dates and expiry dates are used on our food today?
Lori Nikkel: Well, if you consider that prior to 1970, they did not exist. And now everything up to a bottle of water can be stamped with the best before date, it’s become a phenomena of date labeling. And in Canada, you know, best before dates can be on everything. But in fact, when we’re talking about Canadian Food Inspection labeled food, it’s only foods that expire. And I think most people get ‘expired’ and ‘best before’ confused all the time. There are only five foods that expire in Canada. Five.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What are they?
Lori Nikkel: So they’re really based on the nutritional value of the food. And so it is baby formula because the nutrition that is required from a baby has to meet the requirements for the child. So anything past that expiry date, the nutrients become less. So baby formula. Products, meal replacement products like Ensure for seniors. Again, because of the nutrition in it, meal replacement products like protein bars, and the other two are by prescription only, and one is for a feeding tube and one is diet related. But we don’t have to worry about them unless our doctor tells us to worry about them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wait, not milk and meat.
Lori Nikkel: That is correct. Those are all best before dates, not expiry dates. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be handling our food carefully. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t like processed food or heat sensitive food. They can become unsafe if they’re not stored properly. But again, they’re best before dates, which are only about peak freshness.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How well is that understood? Because again, I asked you to have this conversation. I thought that I knew the difference between expiry and best before, but I would have told you that products like meat and dairy can quote unquote go bad, I guess, whereas obviously the bottles of water you mentioned or a bag of chips or whatever, that’s more of a suggestion. But you’re saying I’ve got it wrong on the spectrum as well?
Lori Nikkel: Well, they’re best before dates. It doesn’t mean that food can’t become unsafe. And there’s two things to consider.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Okay.
Lori Nikkel: One is food that is packaged, right. So as soon as you break the seal of whatever that package is, that best before day goes out the window anyway. I think what we’re talking about with best before dates also is that they’re very conservative. So while at some point milk will, actually, I mean, it doesn’t turn into poison, it just turns into something that might give you a stomach ache.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Lori Nikkel: What we’ve done is created such a really conservative best before date that there’s a lot more life on that food after that date where it’s totally appropriate to drink it. And we also need to store things properly and so we can throw everything in a freezer. And just by doing that, we preserve the amount of life that is on whatever product that is.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How did we come to see best before dates in so many cases as ‘do not consume after this date’? Because I think speaking for myself, but also people I’ve chatted with about this knowing we were going to talk, that’s kind of where the difference is. Right?
Lori Nikkel: Absolutely. And part of it, I think, is just by calling it a best before date is confusing, best before what? I don’t know. I think people just assume it’s best before or it’s safe. It’s unsafe after or bad after. We have had some pretty monumental public health campaigns. I recall the one that was, “When in doubt, throw it out”. Now I’m a bit older, but I don’t think that did us any service. And so we just stopped using our common sense. And it’s really a pretty recent phenomena, considering it was only the 70s that we started doing this, where for millennia before, we did not have best before dates. We didn’t have a global food system either, but we didn’t have best before dates, and people were eating food using their common sense.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I was just talking about this this weekend when my family was discussing whether or not some meat we had had life left in it, I guess. We’d gone away and it had sat there in the fridge for three days. And my partner said, you know, 100 years ago, they used to hang it up in dry cellars where it was cool and salted and just leave it there. And until it smelled bad, it was good. And I was still like, yeah, I don’t know. It’s been in the fridge for four days. Maybe it should go. So it’s really ingrained in me.
Lori Nikkel: It’s very much ingrained in all of us. So it’s not just you. And we do have to take into account food safety.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Lori Nikkel: And we have to understand that food that has been left out for a certain amount of time can become unsafe. But we can also Cook the unsafe out of it, which is one thing that we all do is you have to bring your food up to a certain temperature. So that should there be any kind of microbials on it that you cook them right out.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Lori Nikkel: And I’m not advocating leave your meat in the fridge for three to five days and still eat it. I think everybody has a personal sense of what that should be. And depending on the meat, there’s a different amount of life after. What I would advocate for is if you have meat and you’re worried about a best before date and it’s coming up, just put it in the freezer, just right away, put it in the freezer because that stops it right then and there,
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: In a moment, I’m going to ask you about the macro impact of all the best before dates that we follow. But first, and I realize I’m just asking for your opinion here. When we talk about things like, “When in doubt, throw it out,” and the fact that every single thing has a best before date, where does that come from? Because if I wanted to be skeptical, I could certainly look at it as a plan by any individual food company to sell more meat or water or chips or whatever you’re slapping that date on. Or you could be more optimistic and see it just as an abundance of caution.
Lori Nikkel: And I would argue that the truth probably lies in the middle of those two. I think that from a public health standpoint, when we’re advocating for, “When in doubt, throw it out”, that came from a place of caution. And the truth is when we knew better, we actually should have changed the message. But I think that was coming from a place of caution. From a manufacturer or from an industry point of view, I don’t know that it’s nefarious. I think we’ve actually created this culture of waste and it’s just the cost of doing business. We do know that product sells more if the best before date is on it. We know that consumers will look to the back of whatever that commodity is and pull the last one out so that they can have in their mind what is a longer shelf life on it. And then again, forget about it in their fridge regardless. And that will move product quicker, right. And the more quick you move your product, the more your sales are and the higher amount of a margin that you can make. And that’s why we have these global food systems and there’s monopolies around food that are just making so much money.
Now we’ve created this system, and it is a system. So we have to un-create the system. And I will say that it looks like industry is very interested in changing that system, but we have to look at it from an all of systems approach, because I think what started out as an idea Marks and Spencer in the UK quickly snowballed into a global food system best before date waste problem, that how do we now pull that back? And everybody has to be on board.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can we quantify what these dates, especially where they’re unnecessary, cost us, like how much expired food is thrown away that could still be eaten or donated or used in some way? Is there any way to get a sense of that at scale?
Lori Nikkel: What I would love to say is, Yes, but nobody’s actually done the research. So the best research that we’ve done is the avoidable crisis of food waste, that is Canadian research in terms of understanding where food loss and waste is happening across the supply chain. I think one of the really critical factors that came out from all of this research was that best before dates did have a significant impact on it, because it’s not just best before at the consumer at your household, it happens across the supply chain. So you can have manufacturers dumping tractor trailer loads full of food and right to the distribution centre, right to the retail, and then at home. So it’s right across the chain. And so we can’t quantify exactly what the best before component is, only we know it’s big, really, really, really big.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What about how much of that that I might be responsible for? Because I think when people hear food waste, certainly when I used to hear food waste, I would think of the manufacturing plant, the supply chain restaurants that have to throw out food at the end of the day, etc, etc. And I would think, you know, just me and my fridge throwing out expired stuff doesn’t have much of an impact.
Lori Nikkel: Well, you’re not throwing out expired stuff, actually, Jordan, you’re throwing out things past the best before day.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right. Exactly. Thank you.
Lori Nikkel: So there is a whole lot that can be done in our households, so of the whole amount of avoidable food loss in ways which, again, close to 60% of all the food produced for Canadians is thrown away, 21% is at the household. And I mean, I think when we consider all of our own, we know that a lot of that is just cleaning out our fridges when we’re putting in new products after we’ve gone grocery shopping. So in your own household, are you looking at about 50% is because of the best before date and a lot of produce that has just been sitting in your fridge for too long or on your counter for too long. I think it’s fair to say between 30 and 50% is your best before dates at home, it might be higher.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How do we tackle that on, and again, we’re going to talk in a moment about what kind of full scale plan we could create. But how do we tackle that messaging on a micro level? Because every household is different. But certainly every household probably throws out some food that is passed its best before date. How do you change the messaging? Do we need a reverse “When in doubt, throw it out” campaign?
Lori Nikkel: Yes. Yes, we do! And I think when we think about what are the jingles that stick in our head, what are the advertising strategies that have worked for us? They’ve worked because they have been on different media platforms, and there have been a whole lot of money thrown behind it. And so I think what happens with best before dates, even though it’s critical that we manage our food loss and waste, there’s a lot of small solutions happening, and a lot of people talk about education and education is great, and we should absolutely put it in the curriculum for our children, and so they can shame us into it. But this is a really pressing problem. It’s a direct contributor to the climate crisis. So we need to figure out a very good marketing strategy that we all internalize. Doing these things kind of half baked and a little bit over here and a little bit over there. We’re never going to get there. It has to be a big, huge, multi dimensional, comprehensive strategy, and marketing communication has a role to play, like a big one.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What about the more practical things we need to do to get such a strategy off the ground? Is this a matter of getting manufacturers on board to pull best before dates off of products? Water, again, is the perfect example, but stuff like that that really doesn’t need them. And how feasible is that?
Lori Nikkel: I think it’s feasible. I think we’re in a place and time where manufacturers in industry are looking at these kind of measures to manage food loss and waste, but it has to be multi dimensional because we have a global food system. And so we can’t put in systems in Canada if we’re then going to import all this food from different parts of the world because we need the competitive advantage, too. So we need to come up with a global solution.
There’s also a really good economic case to pull them off, because we do know that a lot of the best before is being thrown away across the supply chain, not just at home. And so if there’s an economic advantage for industry, that’s one way of managing it. But I always go back to the same thing, which I have been pounding this drum for a long time. We need a comprehensive measuring and monitoring system of all food loss and waste across the supply chain. We need to set clear and measurable goals, and we need to have either incentives or taxes. But there has to be a regulatory framework in there, because I think once we all see, then we can make measurable impacts of change. But the truth is, you know, nobody really knows. It’s just the cost of doing business most of the time.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Have you heard anything from our current federal government on this that shows it’s on their radar? Have you heard anything from either any of the opposition parties that they have a proposal? Like how much of this is even part of the federal conversation at this point?
Lori Nikkel: It’s absolutely part of the Liberal federal conversation, but also the other parties as well. It’s a real common sense issue, right? Like, nobody wants to create waste, especially now when you see how connected it is to the climate crisis. And it’s a pretty solvable problem when some of the other ones are less, a little more difficult. The food policy for Canada was one great step that the Liberal government put together. I imagine no matter what government is in charge, it might look a little different, but I imagine that’s likely going to stay. The Food Policy Council is another great step, and we have really core mandates of addressing some of these systemic issues. And obviously, I’m inside of the pillar of food loss and waste, and that’s exactly what we’re looking at. So we are building out recommendations with experts in the field, Canadian and otherwise, to prepare some recommendations for the Minister that I’m hoping that she will take and implement across government.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: In the meantime, considering that so much more than at least I thought of food waste in Canada is attributable to households, beyond taking the best before date with several grains of salt, what can the average Canadian household do?
Lori Nikkel: I think managing their own food waste is the best place to start. When I talk about measurement and monitoring, I’m talking about all of us as individuals, too. Like, if we just had a notepad or we can use our phones and we started writing down the amount of food that we were throwing away, then it just becomes ingrained in us that, oh, yeah. Not only are we throwing food away, which isn’t great, it’s costing us money, like about $1,700 dollars per household in Canada.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow.
Lori Nikkel: Why would anybody throw money away? That doesn’t make sense. So even just internalizing it more at home and then working with businesses, and when you see waste in businesses, then you’re going to call it out a lot faster and you’re not going to be okay with that. So I’m not going to buy, you use your shopping dollars that way. You use your voting rates that way. If we don’t get tough on food loss and waste in this country, we’re already seeing the effects of it as individuals. We’re not internalizing it because it’s just life, we’ve created this great system of waste and managing way, so we often don’t even see it. You know, even though it’s there, you don’t think about it when you have a compost bin, you’re like, I’m doing the right thing. It’s going into compost. But are you? You shouldn’t have enough that you have a compost bin that gets picked up once a week, and often they’re pretty significantly filled compost bins. So preventing it is first, always first, prevent it, prevent it. Save yourself some money, save the environment that step one as individuals, and then use your dollars to make change and use your votes to make change.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you say we’re already seeing the effects of it, can you give me some tangible examples?
Lori Nikkel: The climate crisis we’re in right now. It is the flooding. It is the fires. We’re not going into climate change. We’re in it. Like when we look at the Sun, I don’t know if you saw the Sun today and yesterday in the moon, and that’s a result of the fires in Northern Ontario. We’re seeing direct impacts of climate change, and food loss and waste is one of the easiest and largest ways of mitigating GHGs from entering our atmosphere. So we know that if food waste were a country, it would be second to China and the US in terms of how many greenhouse gases it’s producing. And when food ends up in landfill, it’s methane gas, which is 20 times, 25 times hotter than your average greenhouse gas. Climate change is impacting Canada at a higher rate than every other region in the world. Like we’re in it. So what a simple common sense solution. Let’s manage our food waste.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: and I’m going to go eat some products that are past their best before date for lunch. Thank you, Lori.
Lori Nikkel: Please do!
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest. That was The Big Story. For more from us, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can email us anytime, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. If you’re trying to tell a friend where to find this podcast, you should tell them to go to whatever podcast player they prefer and search for The Big Story. When they find it, they can rate us, review us, follow us, like us, subscribe, whatever makes them feel good.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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