The Grocer’s creditable campaign on food waste is a great start, but I wonder how much it is dealing with effect and not tackling one particular cause.
Use-by dates are a necessary safeguard for public safety (unlike best-before dates, which are mostly at best precautionary and at worst an incentive to throw away good food). However, use-by dates have now become ultra-cautious to the point where they appear to assume consumers ignore all instructions and store product in a warm, bacteria-laden environment. The result is products that are almost always completely fresh and safe for days and in some cases weeks after the use-by date.
I am notorious in our family for regularly eating out-of-code product judged purely by sight and smell to still be wholesome. My only exception to this rule is shellfish, where even I am wary.
The situation for best-before is even more unacceptable. These dates have become a device used by manufacturers to ‘force’ people to throw away perfectly good produce. This trend has become so much the norm that canned and bottled products carry ridiculously short shelf lives, as do a lot of preserves and pickles.
Retailers are not absolved from blame. Is it coincidence that M&S and Waitrose so often have fresh product on shelf with only a day or two’s shelf life? I cannot believe these retailers have such inefficient supply chains that this is the outcome. Is it possible they are trying to burnish their upmarket credentials by showing how ‘fresh’ their produce is or, more cynically, is it to get customers to shop more frequently?
Just to further add to the wastefulness of the systems we use, there are appallingly bad systems in place for printing date codes on both inner and outer packaging. Two examples stand out on retail packs: Blue Dragon Noodle Woks have a date code impossible to read without a microscope, while Doritos Salsa Dips have a code printed on clear glass completely obscured by the product in the jar. The situation is even worse for outer packaging where print is often so badly smudged as to be illegible and not infrequently missed off. An essential part of wholesaler due diligence is a rigorous system of date checking and I know from auditing this process regularly how unnecessarily difficult it is due to these failings.
The FSA promised a review of these matters in July 2016. It is now 2017 and a proper review needs to take place to establish what items actually need date codes, whether best-before codes mean anything, to put more realistic (longer) dates on products that require a use-by date, to educate consumers better, and to improve consistency and clarity of communication.
Steve Parfett is chairman of AG Parfett & Sons