Date labels are an increasingly hot topic when it comes to tackling household food waste.
In November 2022, the food waste charity Wrap reiterated its calls for retailers to ditch all unnecessary food labels. The NGO recommended the removal of all Display Until labels, Use By where not legally required and any labels on the majority of uncut fresh produce. The change would see food waste cut by at least 350,000 tonnes per year, they claimed.
Many major supermarkets have begun to follow their advice. In July, M&S said it planned to remove Best Before labels from 300 varieties of fruit and vegetables in its stores; the following month Sainsbury’s went one step further, with plans to eliminate Best Before dates from a total of 1,500 items, a move that it said would save up to 17 million products from being unnecessary chucked away each year; Morrisons followed suit in December, stripping labels from nearly 200 of its own products too, and in February the Co-op also committed to removing Best Before labels from many fruit and veg lines.
Nearly all have advised customers to ditch their reliance on date labels when it comes to assessing the quality of their food and use their own judgement instead.
But is the so-called ‘sniff test’ really a safe alternative to date labels? And will empowering people to rely on their five senses reallycut waste?
First, it’s important to draw a distinction between Best Before and Use By dates, says Clare Grantham, operations manager for food safety at The Safer Food Group. Use By dates are legally required for products like meat, fish or ready-to-eat salads as they likely contain pathogenic bacteria which cause the product to become unsafe over time. It would be unsafe to strip away these date labels. Best Before dates on the other hand indicate quality, taste and freshness instead. For these, sensory or – organoleptic – checks can be used safely to check work out whether or not a product is still good to eat.
“For instance, the sniff test is a good one for some foods, including milk and eggs, but it’s best used in addition to other checks such as looking for solid lumps in milk or trying the water test on eggs by placing them in a water to check if they sink or float,” she says. “Any eggs that float are unsafe to eat, as it shows that air pockets have expanded inside as the egg has aged.
“For fruit and vegetables, check for blemishes, mould, and growths, alongside feeling for softness and bendiness. Visual checks are useful for bread products, where white, blue, or black areas of mould are indicators of spoilage. Mould can also often be detected by smell, and bread will harden as it deteriorates.”
Only half (52 per cent) of adults believe that food past its Best Before date is perfectly safe to eat.
But will people trust their own assessments or are they still likely to throw perfectly good food away? Well, there’s evidence that a good proportion of consumers already rely on taste and smell to check the quality of food. Three quarters (77 per cent) say they’re likely to apply the ‘sniff test’ to check on the status of food a day or two past its expiry date, according to a 2022 study by retailer Curry’s, and plenty ignore date labels altogether. Almost a quarter of people say they keep ketchup for up to six months too, despite bottles stating the product should be opened and eaten within eight weeks.
To hit the right balance, education will be a key part of the equation, says Jamie Crummie, co-founder of food waste initiative Too Good To Go. “For us the approach is threefold,” he says. “We’d like Best Before dates to be removed on products where it’s not legally required, such as many loose vegetables and fruits, oils, chewing gum and salt.
“Second, we’d like a transition from Use By to Best Before where it’s safe to do so, for example on dairy products. And the final call would be to educate people.” For instance, only half (52 per cent) of adults believe that food past its Best Before date is perfectly safe to eat, found research commissioned by the group in 2022, with 20 per cent worried they’ll get sick if they ignore it.
Behavioural nudges on packs will be part of that process of empowering people to trust their instincts, Crummie adds.
We want people to avoid food waste; pouring milk down the drain is pouring money away. Jamie Crummie, co-founder of Too Good To Go.
During a 2021 campaign that Too Good To Go ran alongside major food and drink brands, including PepsiCo, Danone and Nestle, a label that read ‘Pass my date. Look, smell, taste – don’t waste’ was added to products and a similar label could be adopted by other brands and retailers “so it prompts people to use their senses. It’s something we’ve been doing for generations but it’s now a case of let’s formalise that and give people power to do it themselves.”
There’s rarely been a better time to make a strong case to consumers for reducing their household food waste either, he believes. “In the context of a cost-of-living crisis, we want people to avoid food waste; pouring milk down the drain is pouring money away.”
In fact, a survey in 2022 by Too Good To Go found that the average Brit wastes around £303 worth of food each year as a result of following Best Before labels. “If we can educate and empower people, that’s £303 that families can have back in their pockets.”
Top tips to cut food waste
Plan ahead with shopping lists and meal plans.
Use your freezer. A surprising amount of fruit and veg can be frozen very effectively.
Know your labels and trust your senses. Find out more here.