“Use by”, “best before”, “sell by”… the abundance of different dates on our food can be confusing. But all that is set to change, thanks to new guidance on food date marking out today – will it help us waste less?
It’s estimated that we throw away around 5.3 million tonnes of food every year in the UK, costing the average family with children about £50 a month.
WRAP has called for changes to the date marking on food because their research shows that we throw food away unnecessarily when it’s past the date shown.
Should we “sniff and see”?
Our recent survey found that people use the date marking in different ways – and that for some, it can actually be a way of helping to reduce waste.
We found that nearly half of people in the UK are trying to waste less food. Of these, half are checking use by dates more carefully to avoid waste, but almost four in ten are ignoring some use by dates and relying on other checks instead, like whether the food looks and smells alright.
When we asked “have best before labels gone out of date?” in a previous Conversation, many of you, like Richard, admitted to doing just this:
‘I’ve never thrown away a “best before” item until after that date is well gone – as it simply means that the item is usually edible but might not be as palatable. I’ve tended to ignore “use by” dates unless the food looks or smells off.’
Food waste is clearly a really important issue – for the environment and our pockets. But so is food safety – and the bad news for those who use the “sniff and see” method is that food is unlikely to look or smell different even if it’s contaminated with food poisoning bacteria.
How are food dates changing?
To add to the confusion of the current system, some companies also add “display until” or other dates for stock control reasons. When I had a quick look around some supermarkets recently, use by and best before dates were used inter-changeably on some foods, such as hard cheeses.
So what’s about to change? The guidance published by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and FSA today advises food companies to remove their display until dates and gives advice about when to use a use by and when a best before.
The long and short of it is that highly perishable foods (like fish and dairy) must have a use by date, whereas storecupboard goods (like tins and crisps) can get away with a best before date. In other words, use by is for safety and best before is for quality.
Will all the confusion be cleared?
But they’ve ignored one anomaly that I’ve never understood – eggs. Eating eggs once they’re too old can be a potential safety issue, but manufacturers have always been allowed to get away with a best before rather than a use by date. The excuse for not addressing this is that it’s dealt with by specific legislation about marketing of eggs.
What a shame they haven’t sorted out all the potential confusion. But hopefully the guidance will mean no one thinks there’s such a thing as a ‘sell by’ date anymore. Which dates are most important to you and do you think this new system will be easier and make you waste less?