Decoding the dates to save perfectly good food from landfill

* 3 min read

A staple of any pre-holiday routine has to be rifling through the fridge to throw out anything that will go off or pass its best while you’re away. It sounds like a simple task, but the date code on a piece of packaging can leave us feeling slightly perplexed. And it’s not just a few of us, in fact an estimated 20% of food wasted in UK households is due to misinterpretation of date labels. Jump across to the US and consumers are spending an estimate $218bn on food every year that is never eaten. So to find out exactly what these varying dates on pack mean, and which ones matter, we spoke to our resident expert, Phil Dalton, head of regulatory, for clarification.

While it’s language that’s still commonly used, ‘sell-by’ dates actually don’t exist anymore – and haven’t for a very long time. Only ‘use-by’ and ‘best before’ are permitted. Yet there still appears to be a high level of confusion amongst consumers.

The evidence from food waste would suggest that most people link date codes to food safety, whatever the format, and throw food away on or just before the date. Meanwhile, research from WRAP suggests that shoppers could save £600m a year if best before dates were extended by just one day.

There still seems to be a lack of understanding of the significance of ‘best before’, which means that the food is no longer guaranteed to be of perfect quality, but it is often still suitable to eat. Rather, best before is often treated as if it is a use-by – which is genuinely a safety issue if the date is exceeded.

Consumers are generally very cautious about eating something when it appears past the advised date. In actual fact many foods are perfectly safe to eat after the best before date, such as canned and frozen foods, and fruit and veg, where a quick examination will reveal if it is still fit to eat.

Another reason for the high level of waste could be that consumers only wish to eat perfect food and so while they do understand best before, they choose to throw away and replace it anyway.

Food manufacturers will sometimes err on the side of caution and put a ‘use-by’ date on-pack when the best before is actually sufficient. In this instance, if consumers treat the two the same this probably doesn’t matter as much as it should in terms of food waste.

One positive piece of guidance is that the same regulations apply across all EU countries – so if you’re heading abroad, as long as you’re clear between best before and use-by, you should be quite safe. The only difference is that interpretation by consumers may differ, affecting the levels of waste. Some countries may be less cautious with best before dates or may be more aware of quality, such as that of produce.

Either way more could certainly be done to encourage less food waste. However, I would argue that better education and information is required rather than making changes to labelling. Having a knowledge of when certain products are still safe and fit to eat even though they may be out of date would be one approach.

Something as simple as storage conditions can have quite a large impact on how well something will keep – this is of course partly product dependent too. Chocolate stored in the fridge will probably keep forever, but keeping it in a warm room will deteriorate the quality pretty quickly. Likewise with frozen fish or meat. Crisps and biscuits are so highly processed, and loaded with salt or sugar, they are safe to consume some weeks after the best before date – even when they’re verging on being slightly soft.

Food banks and some of the supermarkets are attempting to challenge public perception that after its labelled date, the food within is unfit for consumption. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t tackle what’s making it into our household bins. Unless we begin to approach food deterioration with more confidence – such as judging by smell or peeling back an outer casing – we risk adding to the ever-mounting landfill of perfectly good food.