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Questions and confusion as “best before” label debate intensifies

By Rory Harrington , 12-Jun-2009
Last updated the 12-Jun-2009 at 11:49 GMT

Industry experts and the UK food safety watchdog have been assessing and clarifying the implications of the government’s much-discussed announcement to overhaul the food labelling date system.

The declaration made on Tuesday by Environment Minister Hiliary Benn to phase out some dating systems on labels to cut down on food waste was slammed by industry bodies and has now been questioned by an industry expert. The British Retail Consortium strongly dismissed the proposal that eliminating “best before” dates would reduce waste, insisting instead that consumer education on the issue was key.

 

European power

 

Owen Warnock, partner and food labelling expert at international law firm Eversheds, has also queried the viability of the plan saying the UK Government faced real difficulties if it wished to change the ‘best before’ regime.

 

“UK labelling law falls under the remit of the European Union’s Food Labelling Directive 2000/13 and the Government must comply with this regulation,” he told FoodProductionDaily.com.

 

He added: “If Defra really intends to tackle this issue they must take the opportunity to try to influence the review of food labelling law currently under way in Europe to change the rules. I think what the Government is trying to do is laudable but it won’t be easy and it cannot act unilaterally.”

 

Warnock explained that the actual “best before” dates are specified by food manufacturers who often “play it safe” in setting the deadlines on safety grounds and to ensure their products are consumed at the optimum time in terms of taste, colour and texture.

 

"Best before" compromise?

 

He said: “A more likely solution is that the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) would seek to work with food producers to encourage them to be braver about their ‘best before’ dates and not be as cautious. But I don’t think that manufacturers will be prepared to take any risks.

“I am sure there will be some amendment to the guidance. Perhaps business won’t do too much and the Government will be seen to have done what it can,” he concluded.

 

The FSA has also moved to clarify Benn’s comments that: “When you buy something from the supermarket it should be easy to know how long you should keep it for and how you should store it,” which may have triggered what it said was an incorrect notion that “best before” dates were to disappear.

 

The agency said there were no plans to scrap “best before” dates but confirmed it would work with the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and food companies to discuss “sell by” and “display by’ dates which are set by industry and not covered by European law. However, an FSA official told FoodProductionDaily.com that it was too early to speculate on any potential findings from the group.

 

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