Friday, March 25, 2016

Next terror target is your fridge: German agriculture minister fights "best before/sell by" date labels

From our Science is for pussies series, sub category Not a sexy topic, so we put terror in the title.

Some in the European Union (EU) want to ban "best before/sell by" dates on packaged food.

The fight against these labels has been going on for several years and has been waged under two banners:
1) Some foods last almost forever, so there is not need for a date label.
2) Millions of tons of food are thrown away every year because of date labels.

The first argument is reasonable enough, and the EU has indeed loosened labeling requirements for salt, vinegar, and sugar. The Dutch agriculture minister also says "like rice, noodles, and coffee have nearly indefinite shelf life and the best before date only regards to quality instead of food security".

This means, the EU won't regulate quality any more, at least for these food groups.


Maybe the blogster was too trusting assuming the EU would deregulate without going over board. An article in today's zeitonline makes it clear that the attack on sell by/best before labels is an all out push justified by food waste statistics and choice.

The German agriculture minister, whose portfolio includes food and food safety, said "Customers can decide the point until which they want to use a food". The statement was made in connection with the grand design of "smart packages", for example a chip in a yogurt package that could measure the amount of bacteria and signal if the yogurt is still good.

In short, poor people should be able to poison themselves without being hampered by date labels.

The statistics for wasted food quoted in various reports don't tell us much. For Germany, the estimated total is 11 million tons wasted, of which 6.7 million are due to private households. The article, again reflecting the low level of detail in the whole debate, goes on to say that the FAO estimates that around one third of the world's food is wasted. 

Ironically, the only people who seem to have any idea of the issue are folks like the Danish Stop Food Waste, who pointed out “The EU says that most of the consumer food waste happens with bread, fruits, vegetables, and diary products, not the long shelf products with best before dates, so this EU proposition … will not tackle the larger problem.”

Once again, the reader comments section of an article does the heavy lifting. It's the readers who point out the issues with the huge processed food industry, who describe the loss of vitamins and nutrients in food over time, or who actually know what happens to milk when it goes bad.

A complete ban on sell by/best before labels in a grocery store landscape where much of the "fresh" food is industrial or comes in packages you cannot inspect will kill some people.

[Update] Watch John Oliver's episode on Food Waste for a stomach churning overview.

Inconsistencies in government are plentiful, and Food safety is no exception. One of the favorite examples at the K-Landnews is the EU Novel Foods directive, which is a blanket ban on the distribution of food not widely sold in the EU before a certain date. The scope of the directive is incredibly vast, treating 100% synthetic items in the same way as fruit or vegetables consumed for thousands of years in other parts of the world. No one will mind that ferrous ammonium phosphate as a novel food ingredient requires authorization by the EU, but why it would take a directive in 2010 "authorising the placing on the market of puree and concentrate of the fruits of Morinda citrifolia as novel food ingredient" is less clear to those of us who grew up eating Mulberry fruit fresh off the tree.

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