While it is common for polls to show that people are confused about ‘use by’ dates on foods, the new 5000-strong survey, carried out on behalf of BBC Good Food, is unusual in showing people ignoring them completely.
Indeed, previous research in the UK has suggested shoppers are overly cautious when it comes to assessing ‘life codes’ on foods, which creates thousands of tonnes of unnecessary waste as they bin perfectly good food.
There have been similar findings across Europe. An EU Flash Barometer published in September found that nearly one in two respondents (49%) said clearer information on the meaning of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates would help them reduce waste.
Chucking away perfectly edible foods has environmental implications, but eating them well past their ‘use by’ date throws up more serious health concerns. “Given that the ‘use by’ date is supposed to signify the date upon which the food becomes microbiologically unsafe this is a worrying development,” said Dominic Watkins, a partner at law firm DWF.
The confusion is clear
Though the new research has muddied understanding of how consumers view date marks, one thing remains clear: people are confused by the current system.
The EU barometer poll of 26,601 consumers concluded that the meaning of date marking found on foods is “poorly understood”. “It is also clear from this report that a large proportion of Europeans do not understand the actual meaning of date marking and how ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates should be interpreted and utilised.”
Last month was the first anniversary of new food labelling laws – the Food Information for Consumers regulation. This would have been the ideal opportunity for the EU to change date marking on food if there were an issue, Watkins said. It chose not to.
“I am sceptical that changing the format of date codes will have any real impact without comprehensive education to go with it,” he added. “If consumers were confused with the simple ‘use by’ date – which after all is two very basic words forming an instruction – why would any new formulation fare any better.”
The European Commission has, however, included a commitment in the recently published circular economy package to “examine ways to improve the use of date marking by actors in the food chain and its understanding by consumers, in particular ‘best before’ labelling” – this, in a bid to cut food waste.
In the UK, waste experts at WRAP have called on food manufacturers and supermarkets to reassess their product life setting protocols. They said that adding one day to a range of foods could help prevent up to 200,000 tonnes of household food waste (about 5% of the country’s avoidable food waste).
The Food Standards Agency welcomed the “sensible proposals” to simplify the system and, in some cases, extend the dates. It isn’t known whether the European Commission will consider this option in its circular economy review, but commenting on WRAP’s findings last year DWF’s Watkins warned that any buffers are in place for a reason.
“If you had the ‘use by’ date right up against the scientific safety threshold then the risks from someone eating the food after that date are more significant: there's no margin for error.
Based on the BBC’s findings, the buffers on ‘use by’ dates could actually be preventing potential health risks.