Food stores

Why grocery stores are ditching ‘best before’ labels on ‘generally wasted’ items

  • Apples, potatoes and broccoli are among hundreds of food products with best before dates removed from their packaging in the UK.
  • Food stores Waitrose and Marks & Spencer hope the move will reduce food waste.
  • Date labeling on food is confusing and a key part of the food waste problem, experts say.

Tomatoes, apples, potatoes and pears are among 500 food and plant products to have their best before dates removed from their packaging by a supermarket in the UK.

Waitrose said the move is part of its commitment to help customers reduce food waste at home by 2030.

According to the Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP), a UK climate action charity, 70% of the 6.6 million tonnes of food thrown away each year by UK households could have been eaten.

Another British food retailer, Marks & Spencer, announced last month that it was removing expiry dates from the labels of more than 300 fruit and vegetable products. This covers 85% of its fresh produce, M&S said, and includes the “typically wasted” items of apples, potatoes and broccoli.

“Use by” labels replaced with “Best before”

The Food Navigator news service noted changes to food labeling at two other UK supermarkets. The co-op is removing use-by dates on its own-brand yoghurts to help tackle the £100million a year of yoghurt thrown away by UK homes while it’s still safe to eat.

Supermarket chain Morrisons is also scrapping use-by dates on 90% of its own-brand milk.

Use-by dates – which indicate that food can no longer be consumed after a certain date – will be replaced on these ranges of dairy products in the two supermarkets by use-by dates. These suggest a period when the produce is still safe to eat, even if it is a little less fresh.

Food waste impacts the climate

Milk is the third most wasted food and drink in the UK after potatoes and bread, according to WRAP. But it has the largest carbon footprint of these foods due to the resources needed to produce it. “A liter of milk can represent up to 4.5 kg of CO2,” says Morrisons.

More than 900 million tonnes of food are wasted around the world every year, which accounts for between 8% and 10% of global carbon emissions, estimates the United Nations Environment Programme.

This means that food waste is a major contributor to climate change. It also increases food insecurity and contributes to biodiversity loss and pollution.

Date label language

Best before dates relate to the quality of a food, explains the European Food Information Council (EUFIC). Expiry dates, on the other hand, relate to food safety.

“You shouldn’t eat foods that are past their best before date, but you can eat foods that are past their best before date if they look, smell, and taste good,” EUFIC says.

In an article about food labeling in America, Vox explains that food date labels first appeared after World War II, as consumers increasingly bought from supermarkets rather than farms. and small grocery stores – and wanted “the freshest food on the shelf.” But food expiration dates “rarely match foods that expire or spoil,” the news site says.

Expiration date confusion

Vox cites a landmark 2013 study called The Dating Game which concludes that date labels on food – including “use by”, “best before”, “sell by” and “enjoy by” dates – are confusing and inconsistent.

This convoluted system contributes to “considerable amounts” of avoidable food waste in the United States, where approximately 40% of food is not consumed.

More than a quarter of all fresh water used in the United States is “wasted” to produce this wasted food, say the report’s authors, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They call for standardization of date labeling and note that per capita food loss in the United States has increased by half since 1974.

Food waste solutions

In its 2021 Food Waste Index report, the United Nations Environment Program calls on countries to use food waste data to guide national strategies to prevent the problem.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says that at least a third of the world’s food is lost or wasted along the food supply chain, between harvest and sale to consumers.

Recent initiatives to help combat this include the creation of a food waste reduction and management task force in Rwanda in Africa, where more than 15% of the population does not have enough to eat.

One of the initiatives of the World Economic Forum is the Food Waste Challenge, an annual competition aimed at finding ideas to tackle food waste in households, businesses and society as a whole.

Winning ideas receive funding of €5,000 to further develop their proposal.

Technologies such as the Internet of Things (the world of connected devices) help retailers manage and improve food freshness. Consumers can also use smartphone apps to keep unused, but still edible food from going to landfill.

Victoria Masterson, Senior WriterFormative content

This article was previously published in the World Economic Forum.


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