How Fresh Is Your Food? Is The “Sniff & Taste Test” The Best Way To Find Out?

Do you check the expiry label on the bread or yoghurt when you go shopping in your local supermarket? Probably yes. Most of us do. For Nick Tate, a writer with “”, however, that’s not quite enough. When he wants to buy milk, he always reaches for the container which is furthest at the back of the shelf and has the longest “use by” date. Contributors to the “digitalspy” website – including an ex-Sainsbury employee – have confirmed that they do the same “even if they have to move the ones at the front out of the way”. The supermarkets, of course, are not at all happy about this. Most of them operate a “FIFO” (First In, First Out) stock rotation policy whereby the oldest products are the most visible. If these are ignored by customers, who instead prefer to choose the ones hidden behind, eventually they have to be thrown away, with a consequent negative effect on the supermarkets’ profit margin.

It seems, however, that many people in the UK no longer trust even the “use-by dates” on food. As the Daily Mail’s Consumer Affairs Editor, Sean Poulter, reported on 11th July – quoting a survey by retail analysts Mintel – “67% of shoppers say they rely on smell, taste or sight to decide if a product is still suitable to eat”. Furthermore, 28% of them don’t follow official NHS (National Health Service) advice that they shouldn’t use “any food or drink after the end of the use-by date on the label, even if it looks and smells fine.”  To do so, warns the NHS, “carries a risk that any bugs present – such as listeria, campylobacter or salmonella – will have multiplied to dangerous levels”. Surprisingly, according to Poulter’s colleague, Darren Boyle, executives of some of the UK’s biggest food retailers – among them Sainsburys, Morrisons, the Coop, Tesco, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer – have admitted that they disregard their own labels when they are at home.

The “Food Labelling Regulations 1996” make it clear that the date mark on a product must be “conspicuous, legible and indelible”. It shouldn’t be covered by a price sticker. The mark “is an indication by the manufacturer of the length of time a food can be kept under the specified storage conditions”. The NHS, when explaining food labelling terminology, points out that “use-by” invariably refers to food that goes off quickly, such as smoked fish, meat products and ready-prepared salads”. If the instructions tell you to “eat within three days of opening”, then that’s exactly what you should do.

“Best before” dates, by contrast, are more about quality than safety. They apply to a wide range of frozen, tinned and jarred items as well as “bagged fruit” such as apples. When the date has been passed “it doesn’t mean the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture”. Eggs, say the NHS, can be eaten after their “best before date” as long as they “are cooked thoroughly until both the yolk and white are solid or if they are used in dishes where they will be fully cooked such as a cake”. The purpose of “display until” and “sell-by” labels, “The Independent” has observed, is mainly to assist supermarket staff with stock rotation. They don’t tell consumers whether the item is still safe to eat. The NHS also emphasizes that manufacturers can only state that a product is “low in fat” if it contains no more than 3g of fat per 100g for solids or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids. Furthermore, any claims about the nutritional and health benefits of a food – for example that it’s “good for you” or “helps aid digestion”- must be “based on science”.

What, however, does “fresh” really mean? Alex Renton, also a “Mail Online” journalist, has noted that it “can be used to describe food that has been heat-treated, part-frozen, industrially or chemically altered and stored for weeks on end”. New Zealand lamb, he declares, takes six weeks or more to travel 11,000 miles by ship, so is “nearly two months old when we eat it”. Most supermarket chicken “is four or five days old by the time it arrives on the shelves”. Renton provides a wide range of examples to support his view that consumers are misled, even deceived by the use of the word “fresh”: Sodium and potassium, he asserts “are often added to sausages, salamis and bacon to suppress bacteria and preserve the colour”. Most popular brands of sliced bread contain “preservatives and mould inhibitors such as calcium propionate and ascorbic acid”.

Denton is critical of the egg industry’s reluctance to provide the details as to when the eggs were actually laid. Juices sold as “not from concentrate” have either been “pasteurised with heat or treated with high pressure and filtering”. Salad leaves and spinach “are washed in chlorine and then stored in ‘modified atmosphere’ packaging” to slow the rate at which the leaves rot. Oranges and lemons “are generally coated in a thin wax to stop them from being damaged during shipping and to make them look shiny and attractive”. Bananas from Central America, still green when picked. are “treated with ethylene gas on arrival in the UK”.

It’s an illusion, contends Denton, that milk is “Dairy-fresh”. Forty-eight hours will usually have elapsed by the time it reaches the shop, but stays drinkable for three days in the fridge and up to a week if unopened”. The problem with the pasteurising process, whereby the milk is heated to more than 70 degrees centigrade to remove bacteria is that “it destroys vitamin C and many of the nutrients present in ‘raw’ milk”. The NHS exhorts us all to “choose a healthier diet and make sure our foods are safe to eat”. Yet, with so many of the products being “industrialised– as Denton clearly demonstrates-  it’s obviously not easy to heed the NHS recommendations, however much we would like to do so.

Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on July 27th, 2015 by Colin D Gordon

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