UK plan to scrap ‘best before’ food labels dismissed by industry group

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By Rory Harrington, 10-Jun-2009

UK Government proposals to overhaul its food labelling system in a bid to help slash the ₤10bn worth of food wasted annually have been rubbished by a food industry body.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has dismissed an initiative launched yesterday by Environment minister Hiliary Benn that claimed confusing food labelling and the array of "best before" instructions printed on them contribute to one third of all food purchased in the UK being thrown away.

Labelling initiative

The Government believes its range of measures would cut down on what it described as “Britain’s mountain of food waste”. Some 630,000 tonnes of edible food is binned as a result of consumer confusion over the meaning of different labels appearing on food products, according to research from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Under the proposals, so-called misleading “sell by” and “display until” dates would be scrapped or made less visible to consumers who are confused by them. According to Defra figures, 370,000 tonnes of food is misguidedly thrown away each year after passing its “best before” date, with a further 40,000 tonnes not even opened by UK consumers. In addition 220,000 tonnes of food is thrown away whilst still in date.

Only food that has passed the “use by” date signify is a cause for concern, which amounts to 440,000 tonnes annually, explained Defra.

New approach

The Government has pledged to work together with retailers, the food industry, the Food Standards Agency and the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to improve the way labels on food are used and communicated, and making it much clearer what is and is not safe.

Speaking at the Futuresource conference yesterday, Benn said: “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. Too many of us are throwing things away simply because we’re not sure, we’re confused by the label, or we’re just playing safe.

“I plan to tackle the way these labels are used, making it absolutely clear exactly what’s safe and what’s not safe, so we can stop throwing away good food.”

Consumer education is key

But the BRC rejected the scheme saying it would not reduce food waste. The solution is to focus on educating consumers, said the body.

The “use-by” date is a safety requirement designed to warn customers that food is not safe to eat after this date. The expiration of the “best before” date could mean food starts to lose its flavour and texture but will not be unsafe. “Sell by’ dates help store staff manage stocks, explained the BRC.

BRC director general Stephen Robertson said: “Scrapping best-before dates won’t reduce food waste. Customer education will. Date labels are there to help customers but they need to understand what they mean.”



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