Minimising food waste is a worldwide initiative, as reflected in Goal 12 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), which aims to achieve sustainable consumption and production patterns. The objective is to cut per capita global food waste by 50% at the retail and consumer level and decrease food losses along production and supply chains by 2030. Member states, including the European Commission, are actively supporting this initiative, reviewing standards related to retailers’ capacity to donate surplus food. In the UK, various stakeholders, such as retailers, brand owners, manufacturers, and suppliers, have committed to the Courtauld Commitment 2025, focusing on enhancing resource efficiency and waste reduction in the grocery sector. The industry has embraced innovative solutions and technologies, such as resealable packs, smaller sizes, split packs, and efficiency improvements in delivery and storage systems, to tackle food waste. However, a crucial aspect often overlooked is the primary cause of consumer food waste – food expiration. Lee Metters, Group Business Development Director at Domino Printing Sciences, explores the diverse international practices and requirements for food dating (durability marking) and highlights the potential impact of enhanced consistency and clarity in food labelling on waste reduction.
Research from The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) reveals that 7.3 million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the UK, with approximately 660,000 tonnes attributed to date labelling, constituting nearly 10% of the total waste. The challenge arises from the varied interpretations consumers have of date labels on food packaging. The issue is further complicated by the diverse terms and regulations associated with food dating. In the UK and EU, terms like ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’ were once common, alongside ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates. In the USA, a lack of uniform descriptions on food labels results in terms such as ‘expiration,’ ‘use by,’ ‘best by,’ ‘sell by,’ ‘best if used by,’ ‘best through,’ and more. Except for ‘use by,’ these dates do not pertain to product safety. For instance, ‘best before,’ ‘best by,’ and ‘best if used by’ indicate the optimal flavor or quality, while ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’ guide retailers on product display duration for inventory management. In 2017, WRAP, in collaboration with the UK Government’s FSA and DEFRA, issued new guidance to retailers, promoting a single date label on a product and advising the use of ‘use by’ only when necessary for food safety reasons. The guidance also offers recommendations on additional information, such as storage and freezing instructions. It is important to note that WRAP’s document is designed to complement existing regulations and guidance rather than replace them.
Food Dating Standards Explored
While food dating standards vary globally, a distinction exists between dates related to product quality and those pertaining to consumer safety. In the UK, Campden BRI, a food consulting and research organization, emphasizes that consumers should not consume a product beyond its ‘use by’ date due to safety concerns. Conversely, the ‘best before’ date, as per the Food Standards Agency (FSA), primarily indicates quality, not safety. This advice aligns with the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety, which asserts that ‘use by’ dates must be adhered to, as products beyond this date are “legally unfit for consumption” and may pose health risks. Understanding how product shelf life is determined sheds light on the significance of these date labels. Various analyses, such as shelf-life tests, predictive modeling, and challenge tests, are employed to establish ‘use by’ dates by assessing microbiological factors. ‘Best before’ dates undergo tests like sensory assessment, texture analysis, and chemical analysis to evaluate appearance, flavor, texture, and other quality aspects. Despite perceptions that ‘best before’ dates are arbitrary and contribute to food waste, WRAP suggests that the presence of any date label makes people less likely to discard food prematurely, indicating a potential role in reducing food waste. In the EU, there is no legal requirement for fresh, uncut fruit and vegetables to bear a date label. Using date codes on short-life products can encourage timely consumption. WRAP recommends considering the removal of date labels from fresh produce, where applicable, and promoting consumer judgment in determining when to consume such items.
Global Efforts to Minimise Waste
Internationally, various organizations are dedicated to addressing consumer confusion surrounding date labeling to reduce food waste. In the UK, the Love Food Hate Waste campaign seeks to raise awareness about the importance of minimizing food waste and offers practical guidance for individuals to waste less food. Meanwhile, the Danish organization Too Good To Go collaborates with numerous countries, including Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Portugal, and Poland, to tackle food waste. The organization advocates for clearer date labeling and supports initiatives that enable local stores, cafes, and restaurants to sell or donate surplus food rather than discarding it. In a recent whitepaper titled “Expiration Dates, an Outdated Idea?” the organization aligns with WRAP’s research, highlighting that 49% of Europeans believe better and clearer information on the meanings of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates would help reduce home food waste. To combat this issue, the ‘Often Good After’ campaign has been implemented, reminding consumers that food may still be edible after the specified date if it smells and tastes fine. This initiative encourages consumers to trust their senses to assess the product’s shelf life. Collaborating with food manufacturers like Unilever, Carlsberg, and Arla Foods, Too Good To Go has successfully incorporated the ‘Often Good After’ label on certain products, such as beers and milk items, promoting a collective effort to minimize waste.