EU cautious on Danone’s shift towards ‘best before’ date marking

Danone Belgium announced it will implement a new expiry date display on its products gradually moving from a 'use by' to a 'best before' date marking, [SHUTTERSTOCK]

The European Commission has urged caution about the expiry date marking of highly perishable food after multinational food concern Danone announced plans to get rid of the ‘use by’ reference for its dairy products.

On Tuesday (20 April), the Belgian branch of the Paris-based Danone announced it will implement a new expiry date display on its products gradually moving from a ‘use by’ to a ‘best before’ date marking,

Although seemingly similar, the ‘use by’ date on food is about safety, meaning foods should not be eaten after this date, regardless of their appearance, whereas the ‘best before’ refers to quality, meaning food is still safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best.

Danone’s move involves its big dairy division and includes products like Actimel and Danio, for a total of 85% of the company’s dairy product portfolio.

Contacted by EURACTIV, Commission officials said the indication of the ‘use by’ date or of the date of minimum durability is mandatory for pre-packaged foods, according to the 2011 regulation that sets rules for which of the two dates should be indicated on foods.

The Commission source noted that the date of minimum durability shall be replaced by the ‘use by’ date for foodstuff which, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable as they are likely to constitute an immediate danger to human health after a short period.

Although Danone was not required to inform the Commission in advance about their intentions on date marking, food business operators should be in a position, if requested, to justify the choice of the date marking used, according to the EU source.

However, it is not up to the Commission to request such justification, as it is national competent authorities from countries where Danone will place such products that are responsible for monitoring the enforcement of the provisions of the regulation, the EU official concluded.

Likewise, another source from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) contacted by EURACTIV said that legislation defines what information needs to be on the label.

On Thursday, EFSA published the second part of its scientific opinion to assists food suppliers in deciding whether it is appropriate to give consumers other instructions in addition to the ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates.

“But we are not suggesting to remove any date marking,” said the EFSA source.

New EU food agency tool reopens date marking rift

The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has stepped into the long-standing issue of date marking on food by presenting a new tool to help business operators decide when to apply the ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date to their products.

In a note, Danone said that changing the expiry date from “best by” (à consommer jusqu’au)  to “best before” (à consommer de préférence avant) can help reduce or even prevent food waste.

According to Sofie Buekers, quality and food safety manager for Danone Belgium, the texture, taste and colour of the food may indeed change slightly, but the product is still safe to eat as food safety is still guaranteed after the expiry date.

“The best thing to do is to open and check the product yourself in three simple steps: look, smell and taste,” she said.

Within the framework of the Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, the EU’s flagship food policy, the Commission is expected to investigate the possible impact of marketing standards regarding the “use by/best before” date marking.

Misunderstanding and misuse of date marking indeed leads to significant food waste, as outlined in the F2F, in which food waste is a key theme.

In this regard, the Commission has already launched an impact assessment and published its own inception impact assessment, describing the work outlining the initial analysis of the problems, policy objectives and different solutions.

The Commission estimates that up to 10% of the 88 million tonnes of food waste generated annually in the EU is linked to date marking on products.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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