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Do Japanese take use-by dates too seriously?

35 Comments

Here are three appalling and astonishing statistics, the first from the U.N.’s World Food Program, the second from Japan’s environment ministry, the third courtesy of Josei Jishin (Feb 28).

(1) Roughly 795 million people worldwide – one-ninth of the global population – go to bed hungry at night.

(2) Japan trashes annually some 6.32 million tons of perfectly good food.

(3) An average Japanese family of four trashes annually about 60,000 yen worth of perfectly good food.

Josei Jishin’s source is consumer advisor Rumi Ide, an expert on “food loss.” Largely to blame, she says, is consumer obsession with “shomi kigen” – the use-by date the Food Sanitation Law requires be stamped on all Japanese food product packaging. Shomi kigen is an important and valuable guideline, but need not, says Ide, be taken quite literally.

Another date – “shohi kigen” (consume-by date) – is more compelling, and though the difference isn’t immediately apparent in translation, shohi kigen pertains to the product’s safety, whereas shomi kigen indicates the point beyond which the product may become less tasty. Or (more likely) may not.

Take eggs, for instance. Generally the shomi kigen is two weeks after production, which is appropriate for eggs eaten raw in summer but not, say, for eggs eaten cooked in winter. In that case, says Ide, an egg is good for 57 days after production. In spring, figure 25 days after production.

Natto, says Ide, is good for two to three days beyond the one week the shomi kigen provides for; instant noodles, for a month beyond shomi kigen; retort-pouched food items like curry and pasta sauce, for at least double the one-year limit stamped on the package. And so on down the list. Canned foods, honey, umeboshi and tea leaves are the other examples provided, all of them good somewhat if not far beyond the shohi kigen. Some are even tastier shortly after it.

Better, consumers and producers might well think – the former fearing health issues, the latter lawsuits – to err on the side of caution. Consumers, aware of past food industry scandals, are understandably wary. Who knows what the industrial food producers are feeding us? Chemical colorings, flavor enhancers, preservatives and pre-cooked instant meals are all important to a culture that has less and less time to spend on home cooking. If the industry, backed by the law, advises consumption before a certain date, it would seem the last word on the subject. It’s not, though. The last word is: food loss.

Ide’s rule of thumb is that shomi kigen dates are 20% too short, give or take. Beyond that, “use your five senses,” she exhorts. They were the instruments that served before shomi kigen began appearing in 1995, and they worked well. “Before you throw something out,” Ide says, “put your five senses to work as people used to.” Does it look funny? Smell funny? If not – eat it. “You’ll not only reduce food waste,” says Josei Jishin, “you’ll see the difference in your food budget.”

© Japan Today

©2018 GPlusMedia Inc.


35 Comments
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Shomi kigen and shohi kigen would seem to be the same as use by and best before. Not at all uncommon.

My wife doesn't really follow these at all with the exception of a couple of things. Moyashi and milk. Nothing else is a concern to her.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Most part of labelling in Japan is mostly unbelievable, as far as I can see, and expiry dates are ridiculously short. Japanese milk, for instance, never seems to go off. Though I read labels to try to avoid all the "shortening" and pork and chicken extract and gelatin that is insinuated into the most unlikely food. Still, short use-by dates means some cheap bargains at the bargain corner of the supermarket.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

It's not only in Japan. In the US we had pull anything and everything that weren't sold by the sell-by-date.

Many people won't eat anything past that date.

Perhaps a new labeling system would help cut-down on waste.

For example: S3/15 C3/22 (sell-by Mar 15 consume by Mar 22). Except, of course, kanji would be used in Japan.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

When my wife is gone for an overnite trip or more I use the opportunity to check a few shelves in the fridge or pantries, I can often find soups etc 2-3 even up to 5yrs past haha, they get binned

This mornings milk on my cereal is 2-3days past

BUT she would NEVER buy anything at or close to expiry at the super, unless it was a deal on fish/heat we wud eat that nite!!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"the difference isn’t immediately apparent in translation"

It would be more apparent if a more apt translation for "shomi kigen", such as "best by" were used. That said some Japanese don't really think about, or understand, the difference in Japanese either.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Same here in Europe. People seem to think "best before" means "deadly poisonous after".

6 ( +6 / -0 )

I just ate a can of Miso Saba last night that was a year and a half over the use by date. It was excellent.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I think a lot of stuff is best a few days after the expiry date provided. Like when you cook a curry or something... Have it the first night and it might be OK but have the leftovers a couple of days later and it's excellent.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

84% of Americans toss food based on the dates, to the tune of 8 million pounds of food annually, I just found out. The local conbini owner was saying that he has to pull perfectly good food all the time.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@Haaa Nemui - Actually many things are good far beyond the "expiration date". These dates are extraordinarily conservative. In the case of the U.S. product liability plays a hand in this. In the case of Japan I believe the reasons are more societal or due to potential shame of making someone sick.

An old buddy of mine use to import food. We used to eat canned goods far beyond the date...with no problems. He had some unique insights into this.

There is alot of food that is wasted and it is shameful. There are alot of folks around in need that could would welcome some of these products

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The TV shows LOST and Walking Dead have shown me that food can still be eaten even years and decades after the expiration dates.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

I worked in 2 obentoya san before. It is understandable that during packaging of the lunch boxes when the plastic tape and the labels were amiss, they couldn't be sold to the customers. But when a plastic full of say tomatoes were thrown out when you can spot real good ones, just feel sad. I was assigned to the garbage too. In daily basis, then, in our shift alone, more than 10 kgs of karage were turn into waste. And pasta, and rice and sauces. The one assigned to the food preparation may not be doing his job well except bullying co workers. Excess karage of say 2-5kgs sometimes can be forgivable perhaps. But it was more than 10 kgs and on daily basis. I wonder if the company is really earning and where those wastes go as they were gathered by different waste companies!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

"It's not only in Japan. In the US we had pull anything and everything that weren't sold by the sell-by-date. Many people won't eat anything past that date."

Yes but there are places (not in Japan) that will donate the food to food shelters. IIRC France is making this a LAW. Where in Japan it's AGAINST the law to donate the food. It MUST be disposed of. Plenty of bread stores and the like in the USA make it a company policy to donate unsold bread to local shelters and food centers. In addition to a program in New York city for example,DNSY (recycle food program for NY city), there is a massive movement in New York city for volunteers to go around participating shops and restaurants and pick up left over food each night to donate to the needy/food banks (for the life of me I can't find the name of the program. It if is not "City Harvest" that I am thinking of its another program similar to City Harvest).

I know this article is mainly talking about stuff found on store shelves. But come on, I would bet hard cash that the VAST majority of the "6.32 million tons of perfectly good food" is from the zillions of combinis and pan-ya peppered every 10m in Japan.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I used to buy imported German and English beers here at 10% of the retail price because they were a week away from expiration. Crazy - but good for me for a while.

The thing they missed in this article is that foods can go bad even before the expiration date if they have been poorly stored. The dates seem to cause people to abandon common sense. I mean... honey??? That stuff will last a lifetime.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Unearthed a few cans of frijoles that had expired several years ago while I was digging out of the Kumamoto quakes. Still yummy, 'specially with those corn tortillas FBC sells.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think it depends on the person or even the prefecture. I used to do some rapping, open mic rap nights, freestyle rap battles etc at clubs across the country. Clubs in Tokyo are less likely to stock out of date foods and ingredients, Osak however seems a little more relaxed about it. I've been in their kitchens and found a few out of date items that seem to be trouble at all. Don't stress bro!

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

I picked up a sandwich and can of coffee at a convenience store and went to the counter. The girl said I could have the coffee, but I couldn't have the sandwich.

"Why?" I asked.

"Past the sell by date," she replied.

"How many months old is it?" I asked sarcastically.

"It went past the sell by date 30 minutes ago," she explained.

"Don't worry," I said. "I don't mind."

She explained that it would be illegal to sell it to me. Suddenly within 30 minutes, a tasty sandwich had turned into a life threatening poisonous item that was ILLEGAL to sell.

?

I can't work it out either.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

They take everything too seriously.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Check to make sure exactly how the dates are worded. Here's the quick lowdown about label dates:

http://www.medicaldaily.com/truth-about-expiration-dates-can-food-outlast-labels-294450

“Here’s a superbly-kept secret: All those dates on food products — sell by, use by, best before — almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food, and generally speaking, they’re not regulated in the way many people believe,” a 2013 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic writes. The report found that up to 90 percent of consumers have thrown out food based on expiration dates, assuming the food is unsafe to eat. This sort of mentality only leads to food waste.

In fact, the idea of expiration dates actually sprouted from a concern for food’s freshness, not necessarily its safety, so the majority of food dates have to do with how fresh they will be by a certain time, not necessarily how spoiled they'll be. You might also not know the difference between labels placed on food products. The “Sell by” date, for example, only refers to how long a store can keep the product on its shelves. Food lasting past the “Sell by” date shouldn’t be tossed just because it’s a few days past the timeframe that it should have been sold at the store. The “Best if used by” date defines the timeframe that foods will be freshest, but this doesn’t pertain to safety, either. The “Use by” date, meanwhile, is the last day for “peak quality,” meaning the food’s taste and quality may get worse afterwards, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get sick if you eat it. The only label, in fact, that has anything to do with food safety is the “Expiration” date, which should typically be adhered to.

Thankfully, this is about to be simplified:

http://www.treehugger.com/green-food/food-expiration-dates-get-simplified-heres-what-know.html

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are both advising their members -- major food makers and retailers -- to completely do away with typical labels like 'sell by' or 'expires on' and replace it with just 2 standard labels.

From the chaos of 10, to two, as defined by GMA:

Best If Used By - Describes product quality, where the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to use or consume.

Use By - Applies to the few products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time; these products should be consumed by the date listed on the package – and disposed of after that date.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

when people get food poisoning then they would realize the importance of avoiding expired food even if it's been 1 hour past the expiry! Being hit with food poisoning twice has really changed my views on the above... remember guys, luck doesn't last for ever so if you keep trying expired products then sooner or later ( or even one time for that matter ) you will suffer the consequences!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Suddenly within 30 minutes, a tasty sandwich had turned into a life threatening poisonous item

It's possible. The way to know is to see if you fall dead after eating... then your heirs will sue the shop. OK, it's not magically at that minute. Depending on ingredients and climate, a sandwhich can go bad in a a few minutes, so shops decide on the "safe" time depending on their conditions. If the limit is 2 hours, 30 minutes is a lot. Otherwise how do you want to do ?

But come on, I would bet hard cash that the VAST majority of the "6.32 million tons of perfectly good food" is from the zillions of combinis and pan-ya peppered every 10m in Japan.

From what I know, it's the contrary. I don't say they cut wastes as much as I'd like, but more than others. The kombinis have been the first to deal with the issue. That's why you can see them getting deliveries many times a day as they get the minimum stock of perishable items in shops. Pan-ya and such also tend to bake in the shop depending on demand and they avoid stocking. The other small shops, like Trinket's bentoya, they are not into stock management.

IIRC France is making this a LAW.

You misunderstood. You are not allowed to donate stale food in France. That was about another level of human stupidity. Shops habe been told to give to charities big stocks of what is beyond "sell by date" and before "consume by date" and also food that didn't sell well. Before the new law the a-holes managers of retail chains used to destroy excess stocks in order to free the shelves and they'd have their security staff beat the homeless trying to grab a few things to eat. But the farmer mafia is still destroying some excess of produce in order to maintain the selling prices and for them it's legal.

almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food, foods can go bad even before the expiration date if they have been poorly stored.

Exactly. I check the date when it was made/produced and I make my calculation depending on food and storage conditions. Buying dairies in Summer in Japan, bringing them back in a plastic bag walking or cycling 20 minutes.... by 40 degrees 120% humidity, storing the misty packages for a few days, it is a bet on your health. Idem for ground meat. Use within 2 hours if stored in good refrigeration, or forget the idea of eating it. Bring it from the butcher's in an ice-box or grind at home with your knife. In Japan, they are usually serious. In the US, cluelessness reigns and it's not surprising that they have record level of food poisoning for countries with wide access to refrigeration. In France, I don't trust them much these days. You can go in a shop, and in semi-cool shelf (opened fridges that don't even seem to work well), you can see fresh dishes (like local version of "sushi", salads, sandwiches, etc) that was made 3 days ago and to be consumed within next 4 days. I don't touch that. That type of food has to be eaten the day it's prepared or never. But there is a date on everything by rule. For rock salt, I ignore it. That salt had been made 1000 yrs ago, it can wait a few more years.

Osak however seems a little more relaxed about it.

Homma ni. The big food poisoning cases happened in Osaka.

We used to eat canned goods far beyond the date...with no problems.

The people that had problems are not here to tell. Cans, ground meat and dairies are the biggest killers.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

In that case, says Ide, an egg is good for 57 days after production. In spring, figure 25 days after production.

lol! And all along I thought that eggs were laid!

She explained that it would be illegal to sell it to me. Suddenly within 30 minutes, a tasty sandwich had turned into a life threatening poisonous item that was ILLEGAL to sell. I can't work it out either.

Right, can't figure it out. You would want the girl to lose her job because she sold you something that was past the time and date that her store decided was the limit.

Folks want to shoot the messenger! It's not her fault, nor the fault of the company either. Rules in food production HAVE to be established and followed, otherwise there are going to be a ton of folks out there eating potentially spolied food.

Let's say she let you purchase the sandwich without saying anything to you about the time, you go home, eat the sandwich. Next thing you realize, you are hugging the porcelain queen emptying out the contents of your stomach. You start wondering WTF did I eat, THE sandwich, sold to you AFTER the time it was allowed to be sold, (you can tell from your register receipt and sandwich wrapper, both time and date stamped)

So then you go an bring a lawsuit, looking to make some extra cash, and bring bad publicity to the store.

And you can't figure why she didnt sell it to you? And here all along I figured you had some common sense, my bad.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Yubaru,

What I cannot figure out is why an edible saleable product is good to go at 12:30 and magically it becomes an inedible product that cannot be sold at 12:35.

I'm not blaming the shop assistant. She was doing what she was told.

I'm blaming the guys who made this rule in the first place - you would know much better than me who this is. As always, I bow to your superior knowledge. You are always right, and we, mere mortals, usually err.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Yes. These dates are indicative at best. Use own judgement.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Most Japanese don't grab the first item in line on the shelf. Reaching behind for something fresher.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Yes. Food isn't fine one day, rotten and inedible the next. There are many variables including temperature, storage, exposure to light, integrity of packaging, transport conditions and so-on. Like the article says, open the product, see it, smell it, touch it, and if it passes these inspections, by all means use it. That said, I think it's reasonable for shops not to sell expired products to cover themselves from any legal liability.

Of course producers put overly conservative dates on their products. They know people are likely to follow them without question. Producers don't give a stuff about how much food or packaging is wasted after the point of sale, or people going to bed hungry at night, they just care about making bank.

@natsu823

Most Japanese don't grab the first item in line on the shelf. Reaching behind for something fresher.

That's smart, right? First-in, first-out and all.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I always eat food whose date is expired. If I'm worrried about it, I'll use my nose. If it smells weird then I'll chuck it. Otherwise, I'll consume it. Seems to have worked out for me that way. But for the Mrs and my little boy, I take no chances. They eat the fresh stuff.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Food isn't fine one day, rotten and inedible the next.

Well, yes and no. For perishables, there will be one day where the food is ok, and the next day it will not be. When that day is however is dependent not only upon the perishable, but the immune system of the person eating it. Some people will be able to eat food with more bacteria than others.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

What I cannot figure out is why an edible saleable product is good to go at 12:30 and magically it becomes an inedible product that cannot be sold at 12:35.

So how long after is it ok to be sold? There is nothing magical about the time, but if you think 5 minutes is ok, then how about an hour? Supermarkets often will sell items at a discounted price after a certain set time, but that is not something commonly seen at a conbini.

So again, how long is ok?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

@Strangeland

Food isn't fine one day, rotten and inedible the next.

Well, yes and no

I should have added, 'because some date stamped on the packet says so. '

When that day is however is dependent not only upon the perishable, but the immune system of the person eating it. Some people will be able to eat food with more bacteria than others.

Like I said, many variables.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Food isn't fine one day, rotten and inedible the next.

Well, yes and no

I should have added, 'because some date stamped on the packet says so. '

Yes, but they have to pick a date, and they need to pick one that is going to be well within the safe line for people of any immune system. If they try to push that line as far as they can, they are more likely for someone with a weaker immune system to get sick from their food, which could lead to lawsuits.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

(1) Roughly 795 million people worldwide – one-ninth of the global population – go to bed hungry at night.

Great. More people should try it. Eating a large meal before bed is a good way to put on weight. Like the old saying goes: Breakfast like a king, Lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Working in a hotel restaurant with haccp, we have very strict rules for about every item. Most of it makes sense, but some rules are rather over the top in my personal opinion. The staff is of course following the rules but on the downside too many rules switch of the common sense, which needs experience to acquire. Bacteria are like rabbits: in the right conditions of temperature and humidity they will multiply like crazy. On the other hand we have customers rummaging through the omiyage-corner to make sure they get the ones with the longest "best by" dates. even its all still months ahead!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I personally do not take those best before date too serious. If the container still looks good, does not have strange smell or taste or some odd color, then I would eat it. Then, I had learned the first sign of food poisoning and how to deal with it already.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

nothin new here. i always buy stuff near end of their dates. great discount, -30% or 50%, and sometimes.. if not open, it's still good even 2 months after (some prodcuts...)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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