Let’s Make It a Coffee Date!
How to use ‘Best Before’ labels effectively
By Brian Martell
Food manufacturers, except in a few rare instances, almost always have some sort of date coding on their products’ packaging. These serve to keep inventories along the supply chain properly rotated and may also serve consumers who are looking to buy the freshest products possible. For perishable items, the best before date serves not only as a guide for quality but may also protect against foods that are no longer consumable. An interesting point of fact, there are very few items that are required to have expiry dates on them (even your milk will say “Best Before” and not “Expires By” though none of us who have had the misfortune of a mouthful of turned milk would consider it anything but expired). Expiry dates are limited to meal replacements, baby formula and other nutritional supplements.
CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) notes that products which will not loose their freshness, nutritional value or other desirable qualities after at least 90 days from the date of manufacturing are considered shelf stable and do not require best before date on their labels. For this reason, the BBD coding by manufacturers are completely voluntary on items like pasta, rice, flour… and coffee.
Like many shelf stable items, coffee does not go bad, it can and will go stale if not properly packaged and stored. For this reason, the complexity of determining how long a product will stay fresh is highly dependent on 3 factors, the barrier protection of the packaging, the degree to which the environment in the packaging has been modified and the conditions under which the closed package is stored. Sticking with coffee, as that is the focus of this article, the conditions which will contribute to the demise of this oh-so-wonderful beverage are moisture, heat and the oxygen in the air. Storing coffee in places where it is not exposed to excessive heat or heat sources is a simple step in prolonging the freshness of the product, but what of the other two factors? Roasters will take care to ensure that the coffee is packaged in containers that are moisture, vapour and gas resistant (as well as light, hence the metallization we see in a lot of coffee bags) using materials that achieve these results. Often, especially in flexible packaging, different types of materials are used in laminates to achieve these results. To further enhance the freshness of the product and prolong shelf life, the “head space” of the containers are modified to reduce the presence of oxygen which will react with the coffee making it go stale. This is typically done by injecting nitrogen at the time of packaging into the container (bag) but can also be achieved by using “oxygen scavenging” materials in the packaging which will literally absorb the oxygen in the air yielding a completely anaerobic environment inside the bag (rarely, if ever used in coffee production but used in other food applications where the shelf life needs to be several years).
The history of BBDs is a relatively new phenomena, only coming into popular use in the 70s and prior to that, having an ominous beginning with an Illinois dairy by the name of Meadowmoor in the 30s. As the story goes, a Chicago resident got sick drinking milk that had not soured yet so he couldn’t tell it had turned. One of his relatives, looking to broaden his interests in legitimate staple commodities, decided to invest in the dairy industry and that is how Al Capone (aka Scarface) became a “milkman”. His intention was to lobby the state government to make it mandatory to stamp production dates on milk containers (something most dairies at the time were ill-equipped to do) as well as use “alternate means” of eliminating competing dairies. This led to the “Dairy Wars” of 1932-33 where a cast of characters from the mob to the teamsters to the State Attorney conspired to monopolize the dairy industry even resorting to bombing competitors. Eventually, Mr. Capone and his brothers did achieve their objective with Meadowmoor Dairy, partly by getting the state to agree to pass legislation on milk bottle date coding but first by cornering the market on equipment capable of printing on bottles.
In the UK, Marks and Spencer started putting BBDs on their products in the 70s which lead to other retailers following suit. What is more subjective (the mystery to the history), is the method by which BBDs are selected, often with different manufacturers in the same industry producing the same product with similar packaging having two vastly different codes. Consumer advocates openly state that it is better to use judgement (perhaps a sniff test?) to determine freshness rather than rely on what the codes say. While this is not always practical it does challenge conventional wisdom on what is fresh and what is past its prime.
In coffee, we have seen BBDs as short as 6 months and as long as 24 months, depending on the sector and the supply chain. We are probably no different than other dry good/shelf stable industries where date coding can be subjective rather than using organoleptic evaluations or other scientific means of determining freshness (in fairness – some companies do these evaluations, but it is not required). The UK government has even considered doing away with the use of BBDs for nonperishable food items given the subjectivity and confusion presented by disparate coding methods. Like the advice given to consumers to use their best judgement on the freshness of a product in question, so should those of us in the coffee business evaluate the quality of our wares when determining if it is still fresh or not. Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the freshness of the coffee is in the drinking.
Comments, questions, feedback, start a dialogue? Please e-mail Brian Martell at Brian@heritage-coffee.com