Until now, the law was interpreted to mean that, at midnight on the stated date, all sandwiches and other food carrying a ‘use-by’ date had to be destroyed.

Frequently, items remained unsold at the end of the day that could have gone to charity to support those who needed them. But the law did not allow retailers leeway, as it stated only manufacturers could change the date code, even if the product remained safe to be consumed. In reality, most responsible manufacturers allow some leeway in date-coding packaged sandwiches and food-to-go products to allow for temperature and handling variations.

As part of a programme looking at ways the industry could reduce waste, the BSA asked why the regulations prevented responsible retailers from relabelling products for charity if they were confident about their safety. We argued that, provided retailers were satisfied about the products’ safety, they should be allowed to relabel them and give them to charity.  To do this they would need to undertake appropriate microbial shelf-life testing.

We questioned the legislation’s interpretation with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. As a result, new guidance has been agreed with government and endorsed through the BSA’s Primary Authority agreement with Slough Borough Council, which means those following the guidelines have some protection from challenges by enforcement officers. The changes mean the use-by date can be extended by all retailers selling packaged sandwiches with a use-by date, provided they can demonstrate the food is safe up to the new date.  

Retailers and the charities they support will now need to establish practical means to deliver surplus foods to those who need them.

Changing the interpretation of the law makes new practices possible, but it may take time to get the infrastructure in place to make it happen. Charities, in particular, will need systems that satisfy retailers and cope with the potential volumes involved.  Consideration needs to be given to how the chill chain is maintained through collection and storage, for example, to avoid food simply being wasted in a different place.

Logistics apart, this is a major breakthrough for the handling of waste and a significant first step for sandwich and food-to-go retailers and charities alike.

About the author

Jim Winship is director of the British Sandwich Association