Research in the United Kingdom has revealed five themes around consumer attitudes and behaviors toward eating food past the use-by date.
These include date labeling confusion, treating use-by dates as only a guide, and ingrained behavior.
Thirty people from England, Wales and Northern Ireland took part in two interviews and an app-based diary between March 22 and April 4 to find why they consume food past the use-by date.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) commissioned Ipsos MORI to look at consumer behavior toward these dates. An evidence review also identified 51 pieces of literature.
A recent FSA study found that 76 percent of adults have knowingly eaten food such as cheese and salad past the use-by date, yet 64 percent said they always check this date before they cook or prepare food. This raises the question why people eat expired food, despite checking the date.
The survey found participants often confused use-by and best-before dates and took a blanket approach to date labels. During the app diary, they frequently shared images of products with best-before dates despite being asked about use-by dates. They also described eating items such as bread and eggs after the use-by, even though these products likely had best-before dates.
People expressed skepticism about the use-by date being an exact cut-off and thought it was more a conservative industry estimate. Personal experience of items going bad before this date or not being ill despite eating expired food reinforced perceptions and undermined consumer trust in it as a safety marker.
Explaining how use-by dates are determined and providing information about the risks associated with specific products could help raise awareness of which products have a use-by date and why, according to the report. Greater consistency in labeling, placement of the date and using larger print could also help increase use-by date identification.
If an item was past the use-by date, respondents used sensory judgements including smell, visual cues, texture and taste to assess whether it was safe to eat. This is despite authorities warning it is not possible to taste, see or smell food poisoning bacteria.
Role of experience
Existing habits, routines and assumptions were key. Absence of illness was a signal that it was unlikely to be severe or long-term, with participants assuming any adverse effects would be short term or mild.
Participants had limited understanding of the causes of food poisoning and how this relates to expired food. There was a tendency to associate illness with eating out, rather than food prepared at home, as well as with products such as meat or fish.
Participants often thought pre-prepared food such as ready meals or cooked meats were less risky to eat after the use-by date as they had already been cooked or treated. Habits for preparing expired food included cooking it at a hotter temperature or for longer, removing moldy or discolored parts, and using items in a larger meal rather than on their own.
Handwashing, cleaning surfaces and keeping food groups separate when storing and preparing meals were regarded as more important than use-by dates.
Experiences from childhood often had an influence on attitudes toward use-by dates. Values around animal welfare, inequality in the global food system and a desire to avoid waste also influenced decisions to eat expired food rather than throw it away.
Participants were influenced by time pressure, access to shops and price of food. They were unwilling to make themselves ill for the cost of food. Instead, they would use their judgement to determine whether this was likely, often finding expired food to be safe.
Respondents highlighted the financial struggles of others but not themselves when asked why people may consume foods beyond the use-by dates.
Focusing on meal planning, shopping lists and checking the fridge before buying items could help people avoid ending up with excess food that is close to or past its use-by date, according to the report.
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