Scrap food sell-by dates, government urges manufacturers

Media caption, Richard Taylor from Morrisons on what the changes will mean

Sell-by dates should be removed from food packaging to help cut waste and save shoppers money, ministers say.

The UK throws away about £12bn of edible food each year and critics say confusing packaging is partly to blame.

New government advice says firms should include only use-by or best-before dates and remove sell-by and display-until labels relating to stock control.

The British Retail Consortium said a better approach would be to educate people on what the dates mean.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says five million tonnes of edible food is discarded by UK households annually - the equivalent of £680 for a household with children.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said confusion over food labelling was responsible for an estimated £750m of the £12bn edible-food wastage each year.

'Not relevant'

"We want to end the food labelling confusion and make it clear once and for all when food is good and safe to eat," she said.

She wants confusing stock rotation information - such as sell-by dates - removed from packaging altogether.

"There are products that have several dates on them; use by, best before. Sometimes it says 'display until', which is not relevant at all by the time it's sitting in your fridge," Ms Spelman told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"So I can understand when people - particularly young people starting out with shopping - look at these dates and say 'I'm not sure about this; better throw it away'."

Compliance with the new guidance is not required by law, although Defra says businesses are legally bound to label food with either a use-by or best-before date.

Its guidance says foods likely to require a use-by date - meaning they could become dangerous to eat - include soft cheese, ready-prepared meals and smoked fish.

Foods likely to require only a best-before date - meaning they may lose quality but are still safe to consume - include biscuits, jams, pickles, crisps and tinned foods.

Media caption, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman: "People are confused about food labelling"

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is backing the new advice.

"We always emphasise that use-by dates are the most important, as these relate to food safety," said its head of hygiene and microbiology, Liz Redmond.

'Wrong approach'

However, food writer Rose Prince told Today she doubted the science employed by manufacturers to set use-by dates and said perishables such as eggs and yoghurt could often last much longer.

The guidance was produced in consultation with food manufacturers, supermarkets, trade associations, consumer groups and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

The British Retail Consortium argues the government is tackling the problem of food waste in the wrong way.

Food Director Andrew Opie said a better approach would be to educate consumers so they are clear on the difference between best-before and use-by dates.

"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," he said.

"The government should be spreading that message, not focusing on retail practices."

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