Retailers have slammed government calls for an end to the use of ‘sell by’ and ‘display until’ dates, saying the move would leave customers confused over when food is safe to eat.

The Defra guidance, issued today, following a lengthy review designed to cut waste and save shoppers money. Ministers have blamed labels on packaging for UK consumers throwing away an estimated £12bn of edible food each year.

But the British Retail Consortium urged Whitehall to focus on what it said was the issue most likely to help reduce food waste – making sure consumers understand the terms ‘use by’ and ‘best before’.

“If the government really wants to make a difference to reducing food waste it should be educating consumers about those two basic terms," said BRC food director Andrew Opie,

“Helping consumers understand that food past its best-before date can still be eaten or cooked could contribute to reducing food waste and saving people money. The government should be spreading that message, not focusing on retail practices.”

Suppliers also said there was “a significant challenge around consumer understanding”.

“The Food & Drink Federation fully supports the continued use of ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ date marking as these provide very valuable information for consumers on product safety and quality,” said FDF director of food safety Barbara Gallani.

“We encourage our members to apply best practice when deciding on the most appropriate labelling for a specific product. However, as research from WRAP suggests, shoppers are still confused by the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’.”

The non-binding guidance calls on the food industry to develop more specific advice for products that minimise waste and shopper confusion, while keeping food safe.

Categories likely to require a ‘use by’ date include soft cheese, ready meals and smoked fish. Food likely to require only a ‘best before’ date includes biscuits, jams, pickles, crisps and canned goods.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said the guidance by Defra was aimed at making it clear “once and for all” when food was safe to eat.

“This simpler and safer date labelling guide will help households cut down on the £12bn worth of good food that ends up in the bin," she said.

Read more
Government urged to reform rules on use-by (9 July 2011)
The mults to blame for £14bn waste mountain? Bogof! (30 April 2011)