The scene takes place in a dairy section of a supermarket. You are eagerly searching for a bottle of whole milk with the farthest ‘Use By‘ date and walk away only once you find the freshest one. Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not! The only issue is what happens to the poor bottles with today’s date. They might never make it into anyone’s home and will quite possibly become wasted and thrown away once the date expires. Yet it is not only them going to waste. Let’s dive into the world of food waste to explore more.

Around one third of the globally produced food is according to FAO lost or wasted. Imagine all the bananas in the world (fruit and vegetables are wasted the most) and throwing a third of them in the bin. Scary, isn’t it? Even more alarming is that by doing so we do not waste only bananas, but all the resources used to grow them and get the fruit to our homes. Only in the EU, some 88 million tonnes of food is waste each year which equals 173 kg per person. That is accompanied by some severe impacts.

Firstly, it costs a lot of money. An average British family spends hundreds of pounds a year on food and drinks which waste could be avoided, according to WRAP. The more detailed split of costs based on different reasons is illustrated in Figure 1. With the food being wasted, its demand grows, and prices increase. As a result, food becomes less accessible for the poorest people, both in London and Taiping in Malaysia. Given the fact, that one in ten people suffers from hunger (821 million in total) while a significant amount of food is being wasted does not feel right either. Besides, food waste impacts our environment. Resources such as water, land, soil or energy are put higher pressure on and becoming scarce in many places. Wasting food equals unnecessary release of emissions which contributes to global warming, and therefore to many other issues, slowly affecting us all.

 

Cost of avoidable household waste by food and drink, split by reason for disposal, in billions £ (WRAP)
Figure 1: Cost of avoidable household waste by food and drink, split by reason for disposal, in billions of £ (WRAP)

What have labels to do with food waste?

Now, let’s take a closer look at who is actually behind food waste and what has food labelling to do with all that. Most of us are involved in the food supply chain. That, in a nutshell, represents a lengthy series of processes such as growing food on farms, producing it in factories, transporting and distributing, selling or purchasing food. Though it is usually us, who gets the most attention concerning food waste. The final customers, individuals and households. But are we the ones causing the most harm? Not really. Food is lost and wasted throughout the whole supply chain, and massive food losses are also associated with post-harvest, production or processing.

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Fruit in sale purchased after its ‘Best Before‘ date

Although households may not be responsible for the majority of food loss and waste, we still have a huge issue to solve. Two main reasons are to blame. We either cook, prepare or serve too much or do not to use food in time. Labelling plays an essential role in making decisions as labels suggest food’s expiration date and might influence getting rid of the item. Henceunderstanding different labels is perhaps even more important. According to research undertaken in 2015, labels seem to confuse many Europeans. More than half of the EU consumers did not know the meaning of ‘Best Before‘ and even more of them (60%) were not familiar with the correct interpretation of ‘Use By‘ label. It is not surprising that date labelling has become one of the priorities of food waste reduction policy of the EU.

Much of the food carries a ‘Best Before‘ label referring to the quality of food. Such information tells us that, for instance, bread will definitely be fresh and delicious until the given date but may no longer be at its best afterwards (although still fine to eat). Shops can sell products with expired ‘Best Before‘ dates, and it is up to us to decide about the food’s fate. Highly perishable food is, on the other hand, recommended to be labelled with a ‘Use By’ date as it refers to safety. We are talking about fresh meat, fish, cut fruit or pre-made meals. These items can be risky to human health after a short period of time and should not be sold or redistributed (e.g. to charities).

Better labels, less waste?

Not to blame only consumers, food businesses need to make the right decisions about labels in the first place. It is often in their power to extend the lives of the products and to prevent the food waste. Let’s look at two examples from the UK. In 2009, 25% of pre-packed hard cheeses and 94% of orange juices carried a ‘Use By‘ label, meaning the products were supposed to expire after the given date. Six years later (in 2015) only 3% of cheeses and 4% juices were labelled like that. And what was the outcome? The change gave consumers the option to confidently keep the food instead of having to bin it straight away.

This thought-provoking experience leaves us with a couple of questions. Do food businesses care about food waste as much as about maximising their profits? How may such thinking be reflected in ways of picking the suitable ‘Use By‘ or ‘Best Before‘ date? And couldn’t these companies be perhaps playing around with food labels, customers and therefore food waste a little? It is clear that food labelling is gaining an increased amount of attention, at least within the EU. A key thing to consider is the need to properly look at everyone involved in food supply chain to achieve desired changes.

With this text coming to an end, let’s remember the beginning again. Standing in that dairy aisle, searching for the best bottle of milk. Are you still sure you need the freshest one? Aren’t you going to use the whole bottle today, anyway?