Supermarkets should remove 'best before' dates to tackle £4bn food waste

Sajid Shaikh
Digital finance editor
Signs promoting plastic-packaging free products at Budgens supermarket in Belsize Park, north London. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

UK supermarkets could save £4bn worth of food from going into bins by removing ‘best before’ dates where possible, according to a major study published on Tuesday. It is backed by advice to British retailers to sell fresh fruit and veg lose where suitable to cut plastic packaging.

“Around a fifth of food brought into UK homes ends up as waste, including £4bn worth of binned fruit and vegetables, costing the average household hundreds of pounds a year,” says the study by Wrap, a sustainability and resource efficiency organisation focused on waste reduction.

The study is based on an extensive retail survey and is accompanied by new guidance, for the fresh food sector, produced by Wrap, the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

READ MORE: Five ways to be less wasteful with food and save money

The guidance is expected to significantly reduce the UK’s annual food waste bill and help retailers identify where more fresh produce can be sold loose, and cut the use of ‘best before’ dates.

Peter Maddox, director at WRAP, said: “The way food and drink is packaged, labelled and priced can influence household food waste, and retailers and brands are uniquely placed to help minimise food waste in the home.

“Our research shows that people want clear, consistent information on pack to help them keep food fresher for longer. Overall, we’ve seen good progress from all, but we have also been very clear with each company where more work is required, and where they are falling short.”

Wrap visited nearly 60 supermarkets and examined 2,000 food products – those most frequently wasted in homes. The research found that a quarter of all pre-packed unprepared fresh produce now carries no date label, while the available shelf life of other products, such as milk, has increased.

Better wrapping to stop waste

Wrap also found that having a range of pack-sizes and formats including loose can help to reduce food waste. Offering fresh produce loose gives customers the opportunity to purchase the correct amount for their needs.

“Public concern has grown over plastic packaging since our last survey, particularly around fresh produce, and we have updated our guide to address single use, problematic plastics in this category,” Maddox said.

“The other significant development we recommend is removing best before dates from uncut fresh produce where this doesn’t risk increasing food waste, and the guidance helps this decision-making. We see this being particularly useful for commonly wasted items like potatoes.”

Research also shows that the presence of a date label, of any type, influences behaviour and makes people more likely to discard food once the date has passed.

Wrap said better labelling can help customers reduce the 2 million tonnes of food thrown away because it is not eaten in time, and the 1.2m tonnes that ends up in the bin because too much has been cooked or served.

In 2017 new best-practice guidance was published on how to apply and use food date labels and other on-pack advice, with the government saying last year that it expected food businesses to adopt the recommendations.

Around a fifth of food brought in to UK homes ends up as waste – with a retail value of £14.9bn. This equates to 7.1m tonnes being thrown away – of which 5m tonnes is food that could have been eaten, the study said.

Earlier in July a Wrap report highlighted how more than £1bn of food destined for UK supermarkets was thrown away or fed to animals before it left farms every year, contributing to 3.6m tonnes of waste in primary production.

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