Confusion about date labels is causing food waste!

‘Use by’                                   

                 ‘Best before’

                                         ‘Display until’

                                                                        ‘Sell by’

When you look at the picture of the soured cream above, which date pops out to you? For me, it is the ‘display until’ date.  Although my eyes goes straight to the ‘display until’ date, I am reassured that I can eat the soured cream until the ‘’use by’ date, which is two days later. Now I am an analytical person, so I go on to question myself. If  it is only supposed to be displayed until 21st July and used by 23rd July, do I need to stay on the safe side and eat it by 22nd July?  23rd July seems to be cutting it close. There is always the ‘sniff test’.  Does it smell like it has gone off?

My thought process may sound ridiculous to you, however, I’m not the only one confused.

In the UK, of the total 7.3 million tonnes of household food waste each year, around 2 million tonnes are thrown away due to ‘not being used in time’, and for a third of this food, date labelling is cited as a factor. 1

Some people speculate that supermarkets stamp the date earlier than necessary, so we wind up throwing out food and buying more of their product. 5

Are date labels made up? 

The Food Standards Agency answers this question with a big ‘No’, explaining ‘use by’ dates are determined using scientific knowledge and microbiological testing. 2

Food Security is a growing concern worldwide.  The world is producing enough food, however, 1/3 of all food produced is wasted globally and it is wasted throughout the food chain, right down to the household level. 3

Culture of Blame

There seems to be a culture of blaming the customer for food waste.  If you google ‘how to avoid food waste, the results will be primarily focused on how we, as customers could waste less.  Results include the following articles such as  11 practical ways you can reduce food waste and save money or 10 ways to cut your food waste.

We are all guilty of household food waste at some level, however, food companies play a big role in helping the consumer understand when a particular food item is not safe to eat.

The US Situation

In the US, product dating is not required by federal regulations, except for infant formula. 6

In 2016, The Food Labelling Act 2016 was proposed to US Congress which would establish requirements regarding quality dates, and safety dates in food labelling and other purposes. Unfortunately this bill was not passed. 7

Despite the bill not being passed, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recommends to reduce consumer confusion and wasted food, FSIS recommends that food manufacturers and retailers that apply product dating use a “Best if Used By” date. 8

According to a Harvard study, The Dating Game:  How confusing Food Date Labels lead to Waste in America, 91% percent of consumers occasionally throw food away based on the ‘sell by’ date, out of a mistaken concern for food safety even though none of the date labels actually indicate food is unsafe to eat.

Quick Guide to Date Labels

‘Use by’ – refers to Safety

  • The ‘Use by’ label is required for foods that are considered to be highly perishable such as raw meat, fish and eggs.  The NHS tells us not to eat food after the ‘use by’ date because it could put our health at risk. 9

‘Best before’ – refers to Quality 

  • Food should be safe to eat after the ‘best before’ date, but it may not be at its best quality. 10

‘Display Until’ or ‘Sell by’ – is for retailers to help staff rotate stock

  •  There is no legal basis for a food to carry these types of dates. WRAP research has shown that these dates can be confusing for consumers, and has resulted in good food being thrown away. 11

For further information, take a look at the Food Standards Agency video.

So, now we understand the what the different food labels mean, but I’m still asking the question, why so many?

There has been significant progress with some of the world’s largest food and beverage companies who have recently pledged to standardise food date labels globally by 2020. 12

The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) – a network of 400 of the biggest consumer goods companies across 70 countries, has approved the call to action to standardise date labels.

Companies agreeing to the standardising date labels include Tesco, Walmart, Kellogg, Campbell Soup, Bimbo, Pick n Pay, Nestlé, Carrefour and Unilever.

The call to action says retailers and food producers should take three steps to simplify date labels and reduce food waste by 2020:

Step 1:  One label at a time

Step 2:  Consumer education – Companies partner with non-profit organisations and government agencies to educate consumers about how to interpret date labels.  Education efforts could include in-store displays, web materials and public service announcements.

Step 3:  Choice of two labels, one expiration date for perishable items (e.g. ‘use by’) and one food quality indicator for non-perishable items (e.g. ‘best if used by’). 12

I think this is an achievable target.  In the UK we have already seen progress with simplifying date labels and using one label in supermarkets. Since 2013, Tesco has stopped using the instruction ‘Display until’ and ‘Sell by’. 13

Will standardising date labels actually make a significant difference to reduce food waste?

The World Resources Institute is of the view that standardising food date labels is a simple and effective way to reduce the amount of edible food thrown out by households, saving them money and reducing their environmental footprint. They report that food loss and waste is a major contributor to climate change, emitting 8 percent of annual greenhouse gases.  15

I have no doubt that it will make a difference, however small, and it is one small step towards the SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) to reduce food waste by half. 14