Defra 'best-before' plan could fall foul of EU law

19 June, 2009
Page 6 

The government's controversial idea to phase out 'best-before' dates to reduce food wastage could be scuppered by EU regulations, which specify that such labelling is mandatory.

Defra minister Hilary Benn floated a plan earlier this month to simplify the range of date labels on food, such as 'use-by', 'sell-by', 'display-until' and 'best-before', to make information less confusing for consumers and to reduce the amount of food that is thrown away unnecessarily. Best-before and sell-by dates could be scrapped altogether under the plan.

"Some 370,000 tonnes of food are chucked out each year after passing their best-before dates, despite being perfectly good, safe and edible," he said. "As part of our war on waste, I want to improve the labels on our food so that when we buy a loaf of bread, we know exactly how long it's safe to eat."

According to waste resource organisation WRAP, over 175,000 tonnes of bread is thrown out each year as a result of going past a best-before date.

However, the plan could fall foul of EU regulations, said Owen Warnock, partner and food labelling expert at international law firm Eversheds. "It will be hard for the government to do anything about best-before dates because they are required by EU law. If Defra really intends to tackle this issue, it must try to influence the review of food labelling law currently under way in Europe to change the rules."

Gordon Polson, director of the Federation of Bakers, said that best-before and use-by dates "are all there for a good reason". "They provide useful information to the consumer and we would want to see a formal consultation if there were to be changes," he said.

Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium, added: "Scrapping best-before dates won't reduce food waste. Customer education will. Date labels are there to help customers, but they need to understand what they mean."





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