Harvest Dates – The Future of Fresh Produce

When – if ever – will food producers and retailers have the confidence to label their produce with the date that it was harvested?

Many supermarkets already label their produce with the name of the farm that it was grown on. At the same time they label it with a “Best Before” date. It should not therefore be too much of an extra burden to label the produce with the date that it was harvested.

Such information already appears on some processed, factory-made products as they are increasingly labelled with production dates. Although, admittedly, these dates are probably more to do with quality control and the ability of producers to identify production batches than they are to do with giving consumers more information.

Instead, with regard to fresh produce, having “Best Before” dates means the emphasis is not on how good the product is but on the fact that it has not yet gone bad. In fact, “Best Before” is a misleading and vague expression. It suggests that the produce is at its best before that date but really that produce has been on a steady decline from the moment it was picked. It is also unclear what the “Best Before” is referring to: its health benefits, its cooking properties, its taste, its appearance, its bacterial degradation.

It would be far better to approach produce dating from the other end of the spectrum and lead with harvesting dates.

There would be substantial benefits to be gained across the supply chain – from producers through to consumers – if harvest dates were introduced:

  • First and foremost, the fresher the food, the healthier it is for the consumer. Food begins to deteriorate as soon as it is harvested. The goodness of food – its vitamin and mineral content – declines rapidly as storage and transportation take its toll. The sooner it gets to the consumer the better it would be for them in terms of its health benefits.
  • By adding value to a product, it is an opportunity for producers and retailers to charge a premium price. It’s a way of differentiating between suppliers; a way that good suppliers can demonstrate their superiority.
  • It would bring additional profits. Just as consumers are prepared to pay extra for organic produce, they will also be prepared to pay more for fresher produce.
  • As it is fresher, the food should also taste better.
  • By labelling the produce with a harvest date, producers and retailers will be more motivated to speed up the field to shelf process. It’s an added area of supplier competition. This should help to streamline the supply process.
  • Harvest dates would encourage consumers to buy more locally as local suppliers should, in theory, be quicker to market. This would have environmental benefits.
  • The earlier produce is bought the longer it should last with the consumer so there should be less domestic wastage. Currently, in the UK an average family with children wastes £700 a year on food.
  • It gives the consumer more control over their purchasing. The more options consumers have over how they spend their money the better it is for them.
  • Consumers would be encouraged to buy more seasonally.
  • Once initiated the idea of harvest dates could be extended to other products – the date eggs are laid, the date meat is slaughtered, the date fish is caught.
  • The more rapid turnover of produce arising because consumers want it as soon after it is harvested as possible would mean suppliers need to use less packaging to keep their produce fresh.

The advantages of harvest dates are seemingly apparent. However, it should be noted, not only are some of these benefits questionable, the implementation of harvest dates would also raise certain challenges and difficulties.

  • If the health benefits of produce is seen to be lost or degraded because it was harvested so long ago, then produce might not be considered as desirable as first seemed. Is there any benefit to buying a cabbage that’s already three weeks old? It may lead to a decline in produce consumption.
  • The practicality of implementing and overseeing harvest dates may lead to issues. What happens if a farmer harvests a field over two days? How do we ensure dates aren’t falsified?
  • Harvest dates would be a valueless distraction as they do not allow for other factors in the produce’s quality such as whether the produce has been refrigerated, when it was last treated for pest and fungal presence, whether its water content has been altered.
  • Harvest dates might make consumers choosier in their purchasing which could then require more short-dated reductions and food wastage with the retailer.
  • Harvest dates give no indication of the quality of the harvesting process and subsequent storage. If it is not done properly – maybe because it is rushed – then any benefits gained in terms of time could be lost.
  • Consumers may be shocked by some of the lengths of time that produce is stored for – particularly produce that comes from other areas of the world. If they are told that a type of apple was picked six months ago they might decide not to buy it. Consumer shopping patterns may change.
  • The added red tape and complications might drive farmers out of the supply of consumer produce.

Unfortunately, consumers have very little collective power and, for the most part, would be unable to drive the introduction of harvest dates. If they were to happen then it would come from the producer and retailer industry itself as innovative suppliers seek to gain some sort of competitive advantage.

Consumers can only hint at their interest in the idea; it’s up to suppliers to drive the change.