The publication, ‘Guidance on the Application of Date Marks to Food’, would make it “easier for shoppers to understand more clearly when food was safe to eat” said Dairy UK.
This guidance advises that 'sell-by' or 'display-until' dates used purely for stock control purposes should be made less visible, as they confuse consumers and encourage waste.
WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) research showed that ‘display until’ was often translated as ‘use by’, leading to £12bn of unnecessary food waste at the hands of UK consumers.
Developed together with industry, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Food Standards Agency (FSA) guidance uses a 'decision tree' approach to help manufacturers decide which foods could become dangerous to eat after a given date – for instance, some dairy products, ready meals and smoked fish – and should display a 'use-by' date.
Foods that can suffer a loss of quality without becoming unsafe, for instance, biscuits, jams, pickles, crisps and tinned foods, should use a 'best-before''' date, although a yogurt manufacturer could use either designation for technical reasons.
Under the UK Food Labelling Regulations 1996, food manufacturers have to display either a 'use by' or 'best before' date.
Labelling and storage guidance
Dairy UK director general, Jim Begg, said Dairy UKsupported the guidanceit had helped produce. “Dairy UK is also well advanced, in co-operation with WRAP, in producing supportive labelling and storage guidance specific to milk and dairy products, which we hope will not only help to reduce food wastage in the dairy sector, but which other food sectors will be able to use as a model for their own initiatives,” he added.
A Dairy UK spokesman told DairyReporter.com: "The Dairy UK view is that any initiative which addresses food wastage in the home is to be welcomed. The dairy industry already has solid environmental credentials, but we are always looking at ways to improve, and our overall strategy is set down in the Dairy Roadmap.
"We believe that the DEFRA guidance is a useful step in this direction by discouraging 'sell by' and 'display until' dates, since these can lead to consumer confusion. We also think that there should, where possible, be more uniformity over the decision as to whether a particular product carries a 'use by' or 'best before' date, and this is where the Dairy UK guidance comes in, by making specific recommendations on a product-by-product basis."
Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director of food safety and science, Barbara Gallani, said the federation – which represents all UK food sectors – also welcomed the guidance as an “additional tool” for firms to help consumers fight food waste.
The FDF “fully supported” the continued use of ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ date marks, as “invaluable information sources for consumers on product safety and quality”, Gallani said.
She added that the FDF would encourage members to apply best practice when deciding which label was most appropriate for a specific product.
”However, as research from WRAP suggests, shoppers are still confused by the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’, meaning that there is a significant challenge around consumer understanding,” Gallani warned.
Threat to human health
With safety “paramount” for food and drink firms, Gallani said that FDF members would “continue to look for ways to improve shelf-life calculations with the aim of helping consumers minimise any unnecessary food wastage in the home”.
Liz Redmond, Food Standards Agency (FSA) head of hygiene and microbiology, said: We always emphasise that “use by” dates are the most important, as these relate to food safety. This new guidance will give greater clarity to the food industry on which date mark should be used on their products while maintaining consumer protection.'
However, DEFRA’s guidance is purely that, given that that EU Directive 2000/13 on food labelling states that highly perishable foodstuffs likely to “constitute an immediate threat to human health” must display a 'use-by' date.
And the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that educating consumers to understand the current date labelling regime - an end also supported by Dairy UK - was more important than updating guidelines.
BRC food director, Andrew Opie, said: “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.”