Best-before labels and food waste

Discussions about serious topics, for serious people
Post Reply
User avatar
snoozeofreason
Snowbonk
Posts: 396
Joined: Fri Nov 15, 2019 1:22 pm

Best-before labels and food waste

Post by snoozeofreason » Fri Aug 05, 2022 7:32 am

My food for thought this week is generated by reports that Waitrose is planning to scrap best-before dates from nearly 500 fresh food products in an effort to reduce food waste, and would thereby join other supermarkets that have started such initiatives. A glance at the online comments generated by such articles indicates that they find favour with a large part of the population. This generally isn't because people think that they themselves waste lots of food, but because they imagine other people do. The articles seem to appeal to a desire, which I think we all have, to imagine ourselves as ladies and gentlemen of robust common sense, and to contrast ourselves with other people who lack the same.

The snag with all this is that there is no real evidence that removing best-before dates will reduce food waste, and there are perfectly sensible reasons for thinking that it might increase it. The available research attempts to determine how much food is discarded as a result of date labels, and how much might thereby be wasted, but makes no attempt to discover how much food is consumed as a result of people planning their meals so as to ensure that they use up food before its best-before date, thereby avoiding such waste.

Most of this research seems to involve organisation called WRAP which engages in both research and activism. The documents they produce follow a pattern that is not uncommon with such organisations that combine those activities. They produce fairly sober and scientific research reports. From these reports slightly misleading press releases are generated, and those press releases then generate significantly more misleading press articles.

WRAP estimate that 2 million tonnes of food is thrown away each year because it is not ‘used in time’. However in the majority of cases (around two thirds) the decision to throw away the food seems to have nothing to do with date labels of any kind. Instead food ends up in the bin simply because it is mouldy, or stale, or otherwise manky. In the remaining one third of cases a date label is "mentioned as the trigger for disposal". Some of that might be perfectly edible food discarded because it has exceeded its best-before date, but not all of it will be. In some cases the date label will be a use-by date (and WRAP doesn't suggest removing or ignoring those). And the fact that a date label acted as a "trigger for disposal" doesn't necessarily mean that it was edible. It could be that the date label suggested that it might be inedible, and closer inspection would have revealed that it was, indeed, inedible (particularly if the food was well past its best-before or use-by date).

So, expressing those figures in a more meaningful way, the average UK citizen discards around 80g of food each day because it wasn't used in time, which clearly isn't good. However it is unlikely that any more than 20g of this is edible food that has passed a best-before date (and the figure might well be considerably less than 20g). By contrast over 50g of that discarded food has actually gone off. It is a reasonable bet that none of that 50g would have been discarded if the consumer had been careful to eat it before a date label expired. People sometimes comment, disparagingly, on the fact that date labels tend to be conservative and that food is often fine after the date label expires. It is less common to see any recognition of the corrollary - that food is almost certain to be fine before the date label, so if you eat it by then you won't waste it.

So it is likely that a significant amount of food gets wasted because consumers don't or can't make use of date labels when planning their meals, which brings us to the elephant-burger in the room. No one has a clue how much extra food would be wasted if less food had date labels that we could use in that way.

If you dig far enough into WRAP's research, it becomes clear that they know this. They are aware that date labels are used to avoid waste as well as being a potential cause of waste. They are also aware that neither they, or anyone else, has any idea how much wastage is avoided as a result of date labels (for example see pages 5 and 6 of this report). But none of those considerations end up in the media articles that are generated by the research. These always tacitly assume that date labels are used to decide when to bin food, rather than to decide when to eat it. It is odd that this passes without comment because many readers will be using date labels in the latter manner. I can't be the only one who, on finding two cucumbers in their fridge, looks at the labels on them and eats the one that is closer to its best-before date (and the oft-repeated advice to sniff or poke the produce to test its freshness isn't much use in such cases, because both cucumbers would smell and taste fine - it's just that one is closer to the point at which it won't smell and taste fine, and if I use them in the wrong order I probably won't get round to the older cucumber in time to avoid that).

If we genuinely wanted to avoid food wastage, the sensible attitude to take to best-before labels would be to pay attention to them, to understand how they differ fron use-by labels, and to try to plan our meals so as to avoid exceeding them (while recognising that if that plan doesn't quite work out and we end up with food in the fridge that is past its best-before date, it might still be edible). Unfortunately that would be an appeal to a slightly anal-retentive attention to detail. That isn't likely to be the basis of an emotionally compelling newspaper article, whereas something that flatters us into thinking that others lack our robust common sense probably will.
In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. The human body was knocked up pretty late on the Friday afternoon, with a deadline looming. How well do you expect it to work?

User avatar
tenchboy
Dorkwood
Posts: 1369
Joined: Tue Nov 12, 2019 5:18 pm
Location: Down amongst the potamogeton.

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by tenchboy » Fri Aug 05, 2022 7:45 am

Justvery very quickly before I rush off, I think, as much as food being binned at home, there is also the vast amount wasted by supermarkets binning perfectly edible (fresh) food just because it has passed its s/b date and also not being able to sell off the same cheap for use that night, or even give it away, because of that.

Late now.
TB

User avatar
shpalman
Princess POW
Posts: 7193
Joined: Mon Nov 11, 2019 12:53 pm
Location: One step beyond

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by shpalman » Fri Aug 05, 2022 8:02 am

Well, it would be good if any of this meant that people would buy less food and manage to eat all of it, rather than manage to eat everything they buy, because obesity rates in the UK suggest that a lot of food is "wasted" in the sense of being eaten by people who don't need the calories.
molto tricky

User avatar
snoozeofreason
Snowbonk
Posts: 396
Joined: Fri Nov 15, 2019 1:22 pm

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by snoozeofreason » Fri Aug 05, 2022 8:07 am

tenchboy wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 7:45 am
Justvery very quickly before I rush off, I think, as much as food being binned at home, there is also the vast amount wasted by supermarkets binning perfectly edible (fresh) food just because it has passed its s/b date and also not being able to sell off the same cheap for use that night, or even give it away, because of that.

Late now.
TB
Best-before dates are advisory, so food that is past its best-before date can be donated to food banks and soup kitchens. AFAIK this represents a significant proportion of such donations. Removing best-before dates might reduce the amount of food that gets redistributed this way.
In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. The human body was knocked up pretty late on the Friday afternoon, with a deadline looming. How well do you expect it to work?

User avatar
basementer
Dorkwood
Posts: 1366
Joined: Mon Nov 11, 2019 1:03 pm
Location: 5713, Aotearoa
Contact:

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by basementer » Fri Aug 05, 2022 9:31 am

snoozeofreason wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 8:07 am
tenchboy wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 7:45 am
Justvery very quickly before I rush off, I think, as much as food being binned at home, there is also the vast amount wasted by supermarkets binning perfectly edible (fresh) food just because it has passed its s/b date and also not being able to sell off the same cheap for use that night, or even give it away, because of that.

Late now.
TB
Best-before dates are advisory, so food that is past its best-before date can be donated to food banks and soup kitchens. AFAIK this represents a significant proportion of such donations. Removing best-before dates might reduce the amount of food that gets redistributed this way.
It bears reiterating: one of these two posts refers to "best before" date and the other to "sell by" date, and they are not the same thing.
Money is just a substitute for luck anyway. - Tom Siddell

User avatar
snoozeofreason
Snowbonk
Posts: 396
Joined: Fri Nov 15, 2019 1:22 pm

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by snoozeofreason » Fri Aug 05, 2022 10:04 am

basementer wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 9:31 am
snoozeofreason wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 8:07 am
tenchboy wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 7:45 am
Justvery very quickly before I rush off, I think, as much as food being binned at home, there is also the vast amount wasted by supermarkets binning perfectly edible (fresh) food just because it has passed its s/b date and also not being able to sell off the same cheap for use that night, or even give it away, because of that.

Late now.
TB
Best-before dates are advisory, so food that is past its best-before date can be donated to food banks and soup kitchens. AFAIK this represents a significant proportion of such donations. Removing best-before dates might reduce the amount of food that gets redistributed this way.
It bears reiterating: one of these two posts refers to "best before" date and the other to "sell by" date, and they are not the same thing.
Indeed. There isn't really any such thing as a "sell-by" date. Food typically has either a "best-before" date, indicating a date on which its quality would be reduced, or a "use-by" date indicating when it might become harmful to use. It is perfectly lawful to sell or distribute food that is past its "best-before" date, but you can't do so for food that is past its "use-by" date. Food may also have a "display-until" date, which is I suppose the closest thing you might have to "sell-by", but these are becoming less common because they are thought to confuse customers. It is legal to sell and distribute food that has passed such a date.

Food banks may accept food that is past its "best-before" date (although they may be wary of doing so because even if you wait until food is visibly manky before disposing of it, food close to its best-before is more likely to need to be disposed of, and food banks may have limited facilities for waste disposal). Food banks can't accept food that is past its "use-by" date, and I don't think anyone sensible is suggesting that they should.
In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. The human body was knocked up pretty late on the Friday afternoon, with a deadline looming. How well do you expect it to work?

User avatar
nekomatic
Dorkwood
Posts: 995
Joined: Mon Nov 11, 2019 3:04 pm

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by nekomatic » Fri Aug 05, 2022 10:53 am

snoozeofreason wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 10:04 am
There isn't really any such thing as a "sell-by" date. Food typically has either a "best-before" date, indicating a date on which its quality would be reduced, or a "use-by" date indicating when it might become harmful to use.
At the risk of pedantically explaining something people may already know, the term ‘sell by’ was used on packaging in the UK until some years ago, when the regulated term ‘use by’ was introduced. I don’t know if there was any regulation of ‘sell by’ or if it is now specifically prohibited on packaging, but it lives on in popular language e.g. describing someone or something as ‘past their sell-by date’. A quick web search suggests is still used in some other countries.

Good post btw, a good example of something that’s probably worth blogging or something for wider exposure.
Move-a… side, and let the mango through… let the mango through

User avatar
dyqik
Light of Blast
Posts: 5560
Joined: Wed Sep 25, 2019 4:19 pm
Location: Masshole
Contact:

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by dyqik » Fri Aug 05, 2022 11:36 am

nekomatic wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 10:53 am
snoozeofreason wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 10:04 am
There isn't really any such thing as a "sell-by" date. Food typically has either a "best-before" date, indicating a date on which its quality would be reduced, or a "use-by" date indicating when it might become harmful to use.
At the risk of pedantically explaining something people may already know, the term ‘sell by’ was used on packaging in the UK until some years ago, when the regulated term ‘use by’ was introduced. I don’t know if there was any regulation of ‘sell by’ or if it is now specifically prohibited on packaging, but it lives on in popular language e.g. describing someone or something as ‘past their sell-by date’. A quick web search suggests is still used in some other countries.

Good post btw, a good example of something that’s probably worth blogging or something for wider exposure.
Sell-by dates are still common here.

purplehaze
Fuzzable
Posts: 252
Joined: Thu Nov 21, 2019 12:27 pm

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by purplehaze » Fri Aug 05, 2022 12:20 pm

It's designed to no longer have to get food of the shelf to reduce the price, because that costs a lot in terms of paying staff to check the dates.

Profit before safety.

No one is able to do a sniff test on milk when buying from the supermarket.

User avatar
Sciolus
Dorkwood
Posts: 1064
Joined: Mon Nov 11, 2019 6:42 pm

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by Sciolus » Fri Aug 05, 2022 6:20 pm

snoozeofreason wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 7:32 am
I can't be the only one who, on finding two cucumbers in their fridge, looks at the labels on them and eats the one that is closer to its best-before date (and the oft-repeated advice to sniff or poke the produce to test its freshness isn't much use in such cases, because both cucumbers would smell and taste fine - it's just that one is closer to the point at which it won't smell and taste fine, and if I use them in the wrong order I probably won't get round to the older cucumber in time to avoid that).
Exactly this. A lot of fresh foods are fine for a week or so, but then go from "fine" to "not fine" in a day or so, and it's hard to tell when that will happen. If you shop weekly and plan what to eat each day, you will inevitably end up wasting food because you don't know at the beginning of the week which is likely to go off first.

I can't see how giving people less information can possibly help them make better choices.

This wheeze sounds like a scheme to transfer food waste from supermarkets, where it's easy to measure and makes the supermarkets look bad, to consumers, where it's much harder to measure.

User avatar
snoozeofreason
Snowbonk
Posts: 396
Joined: Fri Nov 15, 2019 1:22 pm

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by snoozeofreason » Sat Aug 06, 2022 12:54 pm

Sciolus wrote:
Fri Aug 05, 2022 6:20 pm
This wheeze sounds like a scheme to transfer food waste from supermarkets, where it's easy to measure and makes the supermarkets look bad, to consumers, where it's much harder to measure.
Maybe it's partly driven by that consideration, and partly by WRAP's need to be seen as active in the public sphere. If the removal of best-before labels reduces waste, then they have a nice campaignable issue, and one that seems to appeal to a lot of people. If the removal of the labels would increase waste, or if no one knows what its effect would be, then the situation is more complicated. I am afraid it is not uncommon for campaigns to be driven by what is campaignable, rather than what is effective.
In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. The human body was knocked up pretty late on the Friday afternoon, with a deadline looming. How well do you expect it to work?

plodder
After Pie
Posts: 2581
Joined: Mon Nov 11, 2019 1:50 pm

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by plodder » Sat Aug 06, 2022 1:05 pm

Food waste is an interesting one. I don't have the stats to hand but around 1/3 of food produced globally is wasted. In the developing world it's due to poor logistics, lack of refrigeration, less packaging etc. In the developed world it's due to consumer behaviour. It's an important policy area because obviously if you can reduce fertiliser use by 30%, or land use for agriculture, or water use etc then there are huge benefits to be had.

User avatar
snoozeofreason
Snowbonk
Posts: 396
Joined: Fri Nov 15, 2019 1:22 pm

Re: Best-before labels and food waste

Post by snoozeofreason » Sat Aug 06, 2022 1:34 pm

You have to be fairly careful about statistics on food waste, even if you do have them to hand. For some reason, people seem to prefer high figures to lower ones (maybe it makes them feel virtuous because they can then tell themselves that they are not as wasteful as they imagine the rest of the world to be). Many of the statistics that float around the public sphere are bogus, and even if you do have a figure for food waste to hand, you have to drill into it to see how "food" and "waste" have been defined.
In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. The human body was knocked up pretty late on the Friday afternoon, with a deadline looming. How well do you expect it to work?

Post Reply