Does the best-before date on a food item mean that it’s unsafe to eat and you should throw it out? Not according to U of G grad Hayden Fox, a fourth-generation farmer who says consumers misled by best-before labels routinely waste huge amounts of perfectly edible food.
After he saw a TikTok video that recommended throwing out food on its expiration date, Fox posted his own video. He wanted to inform consumers about what he calls a wasteful practice mostly driven by food companies’ marketing efforts and consumers’ misunderstanding of food labels.
His video went viral this spring, garnering more than 1.6 million views by April 21 and drawing BuzzFeed to post an article about the controversy.
Speaking over the phone from his family’s farm in Cayuga, Ont., Fox says best-before dates refer to peak product freshness rather than spoilage. “It’s not saying that once it hits that date, it’s poison. I see time and time again people throw food out for no good reason, simply because of a number a manufacturer put on their item.”
Each person wastes about 200 pounds of food a year, he says. He urges consumers to use their senses to check food for spoilage beyond its best-before date. He also wants more people to learn about where their food comes from and how it’s made.
That learning can happen at farmers’ markets, where consumers are more likely to encounter the people who have grown or raised the food. Ironically, he says, produce at farmers’ markets often consists of seconds, as grocery stores often demand picture-perfect items for their shelves.
He figures market patrons value freshness and a connection to the farm even if it means paying a bit more.
His food waste concerns stem partly from his experience on the family cash crop farm, where they grow corn, wheat, soybeans and other crops. In his original video, Fox says, “I literally work all year long for 60 per cent of that food to be thrown in the garbage.”
As well, he learned about the topic at U of G, where he took courses that focused on food waste and food security. Those issues are central for many researchers on campus, including members of the Arrell Food Institute that aims to find sustainable ways to feed the world.
Fox graduated in 2020.
In the BuzzFeed article, he says, “I used to live with a roommate who threw food out the moment it reached its ‘expiration’ date and it physically pained me. I studied food and agricultural business at the University of Guelph, and almost every problem that could be attributed to food insecurity stemmed from consumers being misinformed.”
Earlier, Fox posted a few short videos on social media intended to draw attention to food and farm issues. He purposely keeps the message light: “To educate people, you have to do it through humour.”
Still, he says, food waste is a serious issue that isn’t helped by misunderstanding or misuse of best-before dates.
“We have enough food on the planet to feed everybody. It’s not that we don’t have enough. It’s that the food isn’t being distributed equally or that people are not informed enough.”