That’s the aim behind a new initiative to fight the UK food-waste mountain, by reducing the amount thrown away in the home.
Leading UK dairy and food brands are joining forces to roll out new on-pack messaging to persuade shoppers to be guided by their own senses, given that many foods which have exceeded their “best before” date are still safe to consume weeks and even months later.
In the first co-ordinated move of its kind involving the food industry, nearly 30 major brands are supporting the “Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste” campaign being launched on Tuesday by the food-waste-reduction app Too Good To Go.
It will see brands switching date stamps from “use by” to “best before” on products with flexible consumption dates, such as yoghurt and dried packaged goods, including instant coffee and oats; and “best before” labels are set to be removed from long-lasting foods such as salt.
‘Out-of-date’, unopened food in a household rubbish bin. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA
The national initiative is backed by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the government’s waste advisory body Wrap. It follows guidance from Wrap for manufacturers and retailers, published in 2017, recommending that they simplify the dizzying array of misleading “display by”, “best before ” and “use by” dates to help shoppers get the most out of their larder, fridge and freezer. “Use by” dates aim to protect consumers from potentially dangerous bacteria that could be within food after that date, while “best before” are more of a quality guide.
Backing the move are leading players in the dairy industry, such as Arla Foods – which produces Cravendale and other milk – Bel Group (Laughing Cow cheese), yoghurt brand Danone, Emmi UK (Onken and plant-based Beleaf), and food giant Nestlé.
“At home I rarely look at ‘best before’ dates, as they’re almost always misleading,” said Thomasina Miers, chef and founder of the Wahaca restaurant chain. “Most foods have days (salads), weeks (milk and yoghurt) or, in the case of ketchups, jams and relishes, months more good life on them than their labels denote. I can’t bear waste. Instead I use the power of my senses to guide me. Food looks and smells odd when it is no good – just cover things up, store them well and use your nous to do your bit for the planet… and your wallet.”
The most recent official food waste figures covering pre-lockdown, published last January, show that UK households waste 4.5m tonnes of food a year that could have been eaten, worth £14bn – or £700 a year for an average family with children. A third of this food waste happens because shoppers wrongly interpret existing labels. The UK has also signed up to a global sustainable target of halving food waste by 2030.
The outbreak of the pandemic has led to unprecedented fluctuations in household food waste as restrictions kicked in, were lifted and imposed again. Amid the challenges of “lockdown larders”, Wrap said in July that (self-reported) household food waste had increased by 30%, reversing progress made at the start of the pandemic when consumers threw away less food while confined at home and unable to eat out.
Wrap and Zero Waste Scotland have teamed up with researchers from Leeds University to examine food waste patterns during and after lockdowns and to help consumers waste less when the pandemic ends.
Jamie Crummie, co-founder of Too Good To Go, said: “Date labelling has long caused confusion and unnecessary food waste in the UK. If we are to make significant strides to reducing food waste, we need to take action now. I am calling on other household brands to get in touch and join us.”
Ben Elliot, Defra’s food surplus and waste champion, said: “Often food that’s passed its ‘best before’ date is perfectly safe to eat for weeks, or months after. It’s important we help people better understand whether produce is safe to eat, and that information on food is clear.”