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How reliable are the expiration dates on the goods you buy?

  • Published at 04:37 pm October 16th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:24 pm November 1st, 2017
How reliable are the expiration dates on the goods you buy?
Conscious consumers usually do not forget to take a look at expiration dates – the shelf life of a consumable product – printed on food items they purchase. The expiry printed on the packaging states that it’s still fresh and safe to eat. But how are these dates really determined? Apparently, expiry dates for most consumer products in Bangladesh are based on international researches or similar products from big producers. And according to Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI), the sole body to verify the manufacturers' claim, they rely on the manufacturers as they believe big food manufacturing companies carry out continuous research to determine the shelf life of a product. Shelf life has to be determined through research as durability of food items differs from product to product depending on ingredients used, the weather, packaging, and storage. The durability means the anticipated amount of time that an unopened food product, when stored under appropriate conditions, will retain its freshness, taste, nutritional value and any other qualities claimed by the manufacturer. In Bangladesh, as in many other countries, it is mandatory by law to print the manufacturing and expiry date of a food item on its packaging. The BSTI can penalise food producers for breaching Bangladesh Standards of Weights and Measures (Packaging & Commodities) Rules, 2007. However, the BSTI does not have an independent research facility to determine the shelf life. The organisation just looks into the ingredients and the weights declared by producers, and verify if it matches with the product. The companies determine what date to put on their items. Many of them follow traditions and past examples although producers should choose among a few scientific ways to figure out how long their foods are safe to eat. A common international practice for smaller companies is to list a date on their product based on the length of shelf life they have estimated from data of their competitors; or they may use reference materials or ask food safety experts for advice. The big companies are expected to do the research on their own. "We believe that the companies do continuous research to determine the expiry dates. Renowned companies which have lab facilities obviously do that," said a deputy director of BSTI who wanted to remain unnamed. The official who was stationed at BSTI headquarters in Dhaka for long and now posted outside city, however, admitted that small companies and sometimes big companies too, have a tendency to copy the shelf life of other companies manufacturing similar products. "For example, everyone in business knows that packaged bread in normal temperature remains consumable for a maximum of 72 hours. Biscuits if packaged in an airtight container will remain fresh for more days than in tin containers. “So, new companies just put a similar date on their products. However, the ingredients used may be different and is a major factor in determining a product’s shelf life. We do not know if they have actually researched it or not," he said. “These parameters about food items are mentioned in the Bangladesh Standard Specifications (BDS) clause which we follow at BSTI. There is no international standard for shelf life and the time frame for different products are determined and announced by the manufacturing companies themselves,” he added.

BSTI law has no detail on shelf life

In many cases, it is possible that a product's expiry date is over but it is still consumable; the opposite is also possible where the product has shelf life but has rotten inside the packaging. Expiry dates in general give the idea of how long that particular item has been in the market. They do not tell consumers when the product changes from being safe to not safe. Bangladesh Standards of Weights and Measures (Packaging & Commodities) Rules, 2007 says the package must contain the name of the product, the producer's name, weight, ingredients, batch number, date of manufacturing and date of expiry. Mobile courts often conduct raids at shops and food manufacturing factories and penalise those who do not have BSTI approval or have expired items on the shelf. But the magistrates have to depend on the dates printed on the labels. If there is no specific allegation and the date of expiry is okay, the product is determined as safe to consume. The BSTI also keeps an eye for objections about quality of food products which are already in the market. But it does not have the ability to determine the shelf life, though it permits a product to be sold in market. The BSTI official said it is impossible to check every batch of each product a food manufacturing company produces. “The BSTI picks up random products from market shelves and checks if the product has expiry but has gone rotten, that is it. It is a company’s responsibility to make sure rotten products or batches do not remain in the market, not BSTI’s and certainly not the consumers’,” he added. He said there are hundreds of food items in the market but the national standard and testing institution has the ability to test only 58 types of food products. "We just approve a product based on the set parameters we have. The manufacturers declare the ingredients and we check if the ingredients are all present in prescribed amounts, the weight, and if the quality is okay," the official said. Deputy Director (admin) Taher Jamil, who is also a spokesperson of BSTI, said they determine shelf life based on a standard parameter. "As an example, bread can sustain for three days. If the manufacturer puts an expiry of more than three days on a bread item, it will not be accepted,” he added. He, however, claimed that scientists made the international standard where shelf life is described and we follow it. Mahbub Kabir, a member of Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA), in a recent Facebook post wrote: “Can the safety and quality of a food product be confirmed just by looking at the date printed on its packaging? The answer is no in one word. It may save you from punishment under the law but this stated shelf life has no scientific base in the country." The BFSA official, who has experience in conducting mobile courts, added: “If a manufacturer puts five days of shelf life instead of ten on a bread packaging, can the manufacturer answer on which basis it does that? We do not even have the ability to determine that." He said renowned biscuit manufactures usually give a month’s expiry for their products. "Why is that not 20 days, 35 days? There is no answer. There is no authority to test after how many days the biscuits become rotten." He claimed that there have been instances where food products were withdrawn from the market as their expiry date was over but then new dates were printed on them and reintroduced in the market as a fresh food item. Seeking anonymity, a high ranking official who works at PRAN beverage limited, said: “When we want to launch a new product, we go abroad and look for machines to produce the product. The seller or the supplier gives us tour of some factories that are already using their machines. “They are ones who tell us that this product is being manufactured in a particular country and they are getting a certain time as shelf life for the product. We then bring the machine, make the same product and give the same shelf life to it. “As the machine can usually make four to five types of items, the seller tells us which ingredient and what kind of packaging – aluminium foil, transparent foil, etc – will give how many days of shelf life. “So basically, we give the shelf life of a product depending on the packaging, ingredient and the type of machine that was used. Additionally, the temperature maintained during packaging is also a factor.” The PRAN official further said the machine seller usually give us an estimated shelf life based on our climate. “After we make a batch of the food item, we give it an expiry date based on the estimation. Then we take samples and keep them in various conditions to check at a later date,” he said. When asked about the conditions, the PRAN official said: “We keep them in places like inside the room, on the roof, on top of tin-sheds, etc. We then check it after a month, two months, six months and see if the product is still good.” He claimed that other companies, who make similar products but do not own the same machines, just copy the expiry dates and do not perform any other research. When asked if there was any research done on shelf life, he said: “Yes. The machine makers give us an estimated time for the product, we make it and check if that’s correct or not, that’s it.” He also said they also follow several international brands. “Like in the case of soft drinks, the raw materials are usually imported. So research on shelf life has already been done by foreign companies. So we just give the same shelf life as they do.” He also claimed that the BSTI does not perform any form of research or verification. He said the companies conduct the basic testing, they just say yes or no. Contacted, Professor Dr Nazma Shaheen, director of Institute of Nutrition and Food Science of Dhaka University, said: "When a food product is developed, it needs to go through a number of researches, which determines under which temperature, environment, component and packaging the food product grows fungus and bacteria and eventually becomes non-consumable." She said the standard varies from country to country due to difference in moisture. Dr Nazma said: "Big companies have quality control units which reject products from being supplied to markets if the standard is not maintained. "I think the BSTI should verify expiry dates stated on products through research and then grant permission to supply to markets. “Labs have to conduct test on each product over a period of time, with procedures including microbial indicator analysis as well as sensory, physical and chemical testing to determine how many days it can survive under conditions it experiences in transportation, in storage, at the store, and in consumers’ homes. The researchers also need to think about temperature, rough handling and so on,” she added.
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