Government should educate consumers on date-labelling, say retailers

Retailers have hit back at ministers’ claims that supermarket ‘sell-by’ dates are to blame for food waste.

The government today unveiled new guidance on food labelling, which recommends that food ‘sell-by’ and ‘display-until’ labels used for stock rotation should be removed to avoid confusion for shoppers. It states that ‘use-by’ labels should only be used where the food could be unsafe after that date, while most other foods should have a ‘best-before’ date only.

Environment secretary Caroline Spelman said that the government has issued the guidance to end “food labelling confusion” and make it clear what food is good and safe to eat. She claimed that “simpler and safer labelling” would help households cut down on the £12bn worth of good food that ends up in the bin.

However, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said Defra should focus on ensuring consumers the terms ‘use-by’ and ‘best-before’, rather than blaming retailers’ use of ‘display-until’ and ‘sell-by’ for adding to food waste.

BRC food director Andrew Opie, said: “If the government really wants to make a difference to reducing food waste, it should be educating consumers about the two basic terms – use-by and best-before. This system is carefully used by retailers and it isn’t complicated.

“There are two key facts for people to understand. A use-by date provides information about food safety while a best-before date gives a customer guidance on when a product will be of highest quality. A product that is beyond its use-by date should be thrown away, but food after its best-before date is still safe to eat.

“Helping consumers understand that food past its best-before date can still be eaten or cooked could contribute to reducing food waste and saving people money. The government should be spreading that message, not focusing on retail practices.”

According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), at least 60% of the 8.3 million tonnes of UK household food and drink waste is avoidable, with 5.3 million tonnes of perfectly edible food – worth £680 per household – being thrown out each year.

The latest research from Which? suggests that attitudes towards food are changing and nearly half of UK adults are now trying to waste less food. However, Which? has warned against ignoring 'use-by' dates and replying on other checks, such as sight and smell, pointing out that you can't identify harmful bacteria in that way.

The new guidance on food labelling does not override specific EU or national provisions that require use of a particular date mark for specific foodstuffs, such as pre-packed fresh poultry meat, which is required to bear a ‘use by’ date under the terms of the EU’s Regulations on marketing for poultry.

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