Reducing food waste is a global endeavour. Goal 12 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) is to “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”, including an objective to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains by 2030”.
Member states have embraced the initiative, with regulators such as the European Commission reviewing, amongst others, standards around retailers’ ability to donate surplus food. Many UK retailers, brand owners, manufacturers, and suppliers have also signed up to deliver the targets of the Courtauld Commitment 2025 aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing waste within the UK grocery sector.
As a result, the industry has embraced new solutions and technologies to reduce food waste including resealable packs, smaller pack sizes, and split packs, as well as efforts to increase product shelf life by implementing efficiencies to delivery and store systems.
But what about the most significant cause of consumer food waste – food expiration?
Lee Metters, Group Business Development Director, at Domino Printing Sciences (Domino), looks at the differing international food dating practices and requirements (also known as ‘durability marking’), and considers the potential that improved consistency and clarity around food labelling could have in reducing waste.
According to research from The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) 7.3million tonnes of food is wasted each year in the UK. Some 660,000 tonnes of that waste is, in some way, down to the date labelling – accounting for nearly 10% of the total. This is due, in part, to how different shoppers can interpret date labelling on food packaging.
The challenge is exacerbated by the differing use of terms and regulations around food dating. Until recently, ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’ were a common sight in UK retailers, and across the EU, often seen alongside ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates. While, in the USA, with no uniform or universally accepted descriptions used on food labels, consumers are confronted by ‘expiration’, ‘use by’, ‘best by’, ‘sell by’, ‘best if used by’, ‘best through’ – the list goes on.
Other than ‘use by’, none of these dates relate to product safety, however. For example, ‘best before’, ‘best by’ and ‘best if used by’ indicate when a product will be of best flavour or quality, while ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’ tell a retailer how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.
In 2017, WRAP, in conjunction with the UK Government’s FSA and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), brought out new guidance for retailers to give shoppers simple, more consistent date label advice. The document ‘Labelling Guidance – Best practice on food date labelling and storage advice’[v] advocates best practice as “only having one date label on a single product.”
The guidance also recommends only applying ‘use by’ when there is a food safety reason to do so and provides help regarding when to use additional information such as storage and freezing instructions. It is worth noting that WRAP’s document is intended to be used in conjunction with the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011, the Food Information Regulations 2014 and related guidance, and is not intended to replace the guidance already in place.
Food dating standards examined
While dating standards differ from country to country, there is a distinction between dates related to product quality and those related to consumer safety, health, and wellbeing.
In the UK, food consulting and research organisation Campden BRI makes it clear that consumers should not consume a product after its ‘use by’ date, owing to safety concerns. However, best before is – according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) – about “quality and not safety”. This advice is similar in France, with the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety citing that ‘use by’ dates must be respected, with anything beyond that date “legally unfit for consumption since it may represent a health risk for the consumer”.
It is beneficial to understand how product shelf life is determined to understand the relevance and importance of these date labels. According to Campden BRI, there are many forms of analysis to set the ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ date of a product.
For ‘use by’ dates, a shelf life test can be conducted where the product is packed and then subjected to microbiological-testing over a specific period. Once microbiological substances get beyond certain levels, the product is then considered ‘end of life’. Other forms of testing include predictive modelling, where software is used to predict the shelf life of a product, or a challenge test, where microorganisms are introduced into a packed product to see if they will grow.
For ‘best before’ dates, tests can be conducted such as sensory assessment, which judges the appearance, odour, flavour, and mouth feel of products; texture analysis, which tests for staleness in bakery products; and chemical analysis, which assesses aspects such as taint and rancidity in a product’s flavour profile.
The quality aspect of ‘best before’ dating has led some to believe that these dates are arbitrary, and even encourage food waste. However, WRAP cites that the presence of a date label of any type makes people less likely to discard food before the date, suggesting that these dates could play a role in the fight against food waste.
In the EU, there is currently no legal requirement for fresh, uncut fruit and vegetables to have a date label, using a date code on short-life products with limited time for consumption can encourage consumers to eat products before the food spoils. WRAP recommends removing date labels from fresh produce, where appropriate, and encouraging people to judge when to eat fresh produce.
International initiatives to reduce waste
Across the globe, organisations have been working hard to address consumer confusion surrounding date labelling, in a bid to reduce food waste. In the UK, the Love Food Hate Waste campaign aims to raise awareness of the need to reduce food waste and provides practical advice to help individuals waste less food. While Danish organisation Too Good To Go works with a multitude of other countries, including Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Portugal, and Poland, to reduce food waste.
The organisation campaigns for clearer date labelling, as well as initiatives enabling local stores, cafes, and restaurants to sell or donate surplus food rather than letting it go to waste. In a recent whitepaper, “Expiration dates, an outdated idea?” the organisation supports WRAP’s research by stating that 49% of Europeans think that better and clearer information on the meaning of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates would help them waste less food at home.
Significant work has been undertaken to combat this subjective cause of waste including the ‘Often Good After’ campaign which reminds consumers that food may still be edible after that specified date if it smells and tastes fine. The ‘Often Good After’ campaign encourages consumers to trust their senses to test the shelf life of the product. A number of food manufacturers, including Unilever, Carlsberg, and Arla Foods, have worked collaboratively with Too Good To Go to bring the initiative to life. Carlsberg and Arla Foods added an ‘Often Good After’ date to certain beers and milk products, and Unilever adopted the label for its three Knorr rice noodle mini-meals.
A look into alternatives
As many food manufacturers welcome international initiatives to reduce waste, work is also being undertaken behind the scenes to investigate alternative packaging materials to plastic. Alternative packaging may extend the shelf life of many products; not only to provide convenience but also to minimise waste. Many industry bodies[x], have spoken out about the pressure facing companies to reduce plastic use whilst not increasing food waste.
The industry – including both food manufacturers and grocery retailers – has become increasingly aware that there could be an increase in food waste due to the reduction in plastics. As the industry learns more about the alternatives to plastics, this could change. Currently, some ‘best before’ dates for new packaging materials are being predicted, often giving products a shorter shelf life to begin with, which is then extended as the study progresses.
The use of alternative packaging is being supported by groups and initiatives such as NanoPack, an EU funded project seeking to extend the shelf life of products with the use of active food packaging technologies. Additional methodologies include the use of plant- or food-based materials in packaging films, protective coatings, and the use of antioxidant nanoparticles, as discussed in a recent report by PreScouter.
Whilst this is all vital work, the next step when using any material, as stated by Campden BRI, needs to be re-establishing the product’s shelf life. If using alternative materials, this should also entail assessing the packaging material itself, as well as the food packed within. This is extremely important when considering the correct date coding for these products, to ensure that food does not spoil before it gets to the consumer.
Food manufacturers are clearly on a journey, and many are demonstrating their commitment to reducing food waste by working collaboratively with organisations that are making a mark in the area. We’ve seen many initiatives and industry organisations investigating alternative packaging materials, seeking to address the confusion surrounding date marking in a bid to both reduce food waste and make food packaging more sustainable, showing that steps are being taken in the right direction.
As regulations continue to change, food and beverage manufacturers should strive to work with organisations that have up to date knowledge of date coding requirements, and coding and marking regulations, in order to remain compliant and contribute to the global goal of reducing food waste.