The European Union food labelling regulation states that most pre-packed food products must display either a “use by” or a “best before” date. These dates are the source of some confusion amongst consumers, resulting in good food being thrown away prematurely. The research estimates that confusion over current date marking practices and other food label information could be causing up to 10% of the 88 million tonnes of food waste generated annually in the EU, a figure which considers the whole value chain from manufacturers to consumers.
“Use by” dates should be reserved for those products that go off quickly and where there is a risk to food safety if consumed after date expiry. “Best before” dates appear on a wide range of food products and are about food quality and not safety.
A new Anthesis-led study, published by the European Commission, is the first research of its kind looking at date marks on food products across Europe with the aim of informing the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan on the best actions to take to prevent food waste.
How the date mark study worked
The study went shopping across eight EU Member States for a standard basket of 10 pre-defined food products, including pre-prepared salad, pre-packed sliced bread, chilled fish, sliced ham, fresh milk, yoghurts, hard cheese, chilled fresh juice, pre-prepared chilled pasta and tomato ketchup.
A total of 2,296 products were sampled from a representative profile of retailers. Detailed analysis of the food labels was used to compare date labelling and on-pack advice to consumers on food storage, open-life advice and the remaining product life.
Key findings of the research
Although 96% of sampled products carried either a “best before” or “use by” date mark in line with the food labelling regulation, the study found only three of the food product types had consistent date marking across the eight countries – sliced bread, tomato ketchup and chilled fresh juice.
Of the other food types, some carried “use by” dates in certain countries and “best before” in others. Even amongst identical products of international brands, date marks were found to be inconsistent from one country to another, despite there being no significant difference in the average remaining life of the same products labelled with “use by” and “best before” dates.
What next for EU food labels?
From the research analysis, the overall conclusion is that proposals to reduce food waste across Europe by reform and simplification of date marks should focus on those food products where the consumer decision to discard is most influenced by reading the on-pack labels of products, and whose contribution to EU food waste is also significant. The greatest opportunities were identified for milk and yoghurts, fresh juices, chilled meat and fish.
The study also identified the opportunity for food producers to make date marks more legible, with 11% of the products sampled judged to be difficult to read.
The research conclusions also recommend the production of technical guidance for food businesses on how to:
- Determine shelf life
- Choose between “use by” and “best before”
- Specify storage advice and open life instructions
- Examine opportunities for the possible extension of product life
Dr Julian Parfitt is Resouce Policy Advisor and Technical Director at Anthesis. If you'd like to speak to Julian about reducing your food waste and increasing efficiency of your organisation, please get in touch below.