Food waste is a global challenge. According to the UN, one-third of all food produced for human consumption is loss or wasted – which means that 25% of the world’s fresh water supply is used to grow food that never reaches the table.
In developed countries, the vast majority of food waste occurs in the home. ‘Best before’ dates, according to a growing number of supermarket retailers in the UK, are not helping the situation.
It has been estimated that 53% of Europeans don’t understand the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ when it comes to food labelling. If a shopper mistakes the ‘best before’ date for an ‘expiry date’, they could believe they will fall seriously ill from consuming the product after the indicative marking.
One solution lies in removing the ‘best before’ date completely, or swapping a ‘use-by’ for a ‘best before’ date where safe to do so.
Cutting waste in fruit and veg
One category retailers are revaluating in terms of ‘best before’ dates is fresh produce.
M&S is the latest to announce plans to removing dates from fruit and vegetables, explaining that the move will help reduce both in-store and household food waste.
‘Best before’ dates will be removed from the labelling of more than 300 fruit and vegetable products – making up 85% of M&S’ produce offering – including some of the most commonly wasted items: apples, potatoes and broccoli.
Instead, the UK retailer will replace ‘best before’ dates with a new code M&S store colleagues will use to ensure ‘freshness and quality is maintained’.
Andrew Clappen, Director of Food Technology at M&S said the retailer is ‘determined’ to tackle food waste, and to do so, will need to be ‘innovative and ambitious’. This includes removing ‘best before’ dates where safe to do so and trialling new ways to sell its products and ‘galvanising’ its customers to ‘get creative’ with leftovers.
Non-for-profit WRAP welcomed the move. “We’re thrilled to see this move from M&S, which will reduce food waste and help tackle the climate crisis,” said Catherine David, Director of Collaboration and Change at WRAP.
“Removing dates on fresh fruit and veg can save the equivalent of 7 million shopping baskets of food being binned in our homes. We urge more supermarkets to get ahead on food waste by axing date labels from fresh produce, allowing people to use their own judgement.”
M&S is not alone in tackling food waste in fruit and veg. Last year, Co-op removed date labels on several fresh produce lines as part of an ongoing trial.
Focus on dairy: milk and yoghurt
Co-op is also taking action in the dairy aisle.
It is estimated that 42,000 tonnes – equating to £100m worth – of edible yoghurt is thrown out by UK homes every year due to guidance printed on pack.
In April 2022, the retailer made the decision to scrap ‘use by’ dates from all of its own-brand yoghurts. The ‘use by’ dates have instead been replaced by ‘best before’ dates.
“Yoghurt can be safe to eat if stored unopened in a fridge after the date mark shown, so we have made the move to ‘best before’ dates to help reduce food waste,” explained Nick Cornwell, Head of Food Technical at Co-op.
“The acidity of yoghurt acts as a natural defence and we’d encourage shoppers to use their judgement on the quality of their yoghurt if it is past the best before date.”
Elsewhere in dairy, retailer Morrisons is targeting milk products. Behind potatoes and bread, milk is the third most wasted food and drink product in the UK. It is estimated around 490m pints are wasted every year.
Morrisons is taking action by replacing ‘use by’ dates for best before dates on 90% of its own brand milk. At the same time, the retailer is encouraging its customers to use a sniff test to help reduce food waste in the home.
The ‘use by’ dates will be scrapped from Morrisons own brand British and Scottish milks.
“Wasted milk means wasted effort by our farmers and unnecessary carbon being released into the atmosphere,” said Ian Goode, Senior Milk Buyer at Morrisons.
“Good quality well-kept milk has a good new days’ life after normal ‘use by’ dates – and we think it should be consumed not tipped down the sink. So we’re taking a bold step today and asking customers to decide whether their milk is still good to drink.
“Generations before us have always used the sniff test – and I believe we can too.”