When Food Should Be Sold vs. Used
According to Newton’s laws of physics (definitely not my strong suit), every action has a reaction. So it is with British government advice that food packaging labels should not include sell-by dates (which The Independent says are already "largely defunct") or display until dates, generally used for stock rotation purposes.
Caroline Spelman, environment secretary at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggests products should only be labeled with one date — either best before or use by. According to Food and Drink Europe and others, she added, "Many people do not understand the meaning of the labels and mistakenly believe that products are no longer safe to consume." The Guardian report is one emphasizing the intention is to "reduce food waste" caused by fears that food is unsafe sooner than is the case, causing an estimated £12 billion (or 12 million tons) in unnecessary waste annually.
Just-food quotes the reaction of food ethics council executive director, Tom MacMillan, applauding the action but then the reaction of Andrew Opie, food director of the British Retail Consortium, who argues, "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."
Food and Drink Europe says Barbara Gallani of the Food and Drink Federation believes best before and use by dates provide "very valuable information … on safety and quality." In spite of the BRC’s reaction, Food and Drink Europe explains "the new rules were drawn up following a consultation … with supermarkets, manufacturers, consumer groups, regulators, and waste reduction groups," while The Grocer points out that the guidance is non-binding and "calls on the food industry to develop more specific advice."
Clarification is provided in the Guardian: "’Use by’ labels should only be used if food could be unsafe to eat after that date … ‘best before’ shows the product is no longer at its best but is still safe to consume." Fortunately for consumers, there does appear to be some consensus for an approach clarifying the terms among all those quoted in the various stories.
- UK scraps sell-by dates on food products – Food and Drink Europe
- Sell-by dates thrown out – Just Food
- Government bins "sell-by" dates to reduce food waste – The Guardian
- Defra date labelling plan "will confuse shoppers" – The Grocer
- Government urged to reform rules on use-by – The Grocer
- Why shops find a ban on sell-by dates hard to swallow – The Independent
- Retailers attack food labelling plan – Financial Times
Discussion Questions: Are the terms best before and use by self-explanatory? Should retailers do more to ensure consumers understand date labeling so they don’t throw away food too soon?