Could this be the end of food label confusion?

John Mitchell, partner at law firm Blake Morgan, welcomes new guidance that should simplify food labelling and help to reduce food waste

Safe food supply is the overriding principle of food law, and all baking businesses are responsible for ensuring their products are not injurious to health.

However, wide-ranging date labelling protocol and the lack of an industry standard have caused confusion for manufacturers when they try to adhere to this basic aim while also allowing the consumer to enjoy the product at its best.

‘Sell by’, ‘Best if consumed by’, ‘Display by’, ‘Use by’ and ‘Best before’ are all common date labels, but are open to misinterpretation.

A nationwide effort to streamline and simplify date labels on products has now been made and, in my opinion, it is long overdue. The driving force behind this is reducing food waste. Two million tonnes of food is wasted each year in UK homes, purely by not being used in time – and a third of this food waste is triggered because of how consumers interpret existing date labels.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme has produced new industry guidance in association with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. The legislative framework can be summarised as:

The ‘Use by’ date relates to food safety. Food cannot be sold, donated or consumed after this date. The use of the ‘Use by’ date is mandatory under EU and UK law for all foods that, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and therefore likely, after a short period, to constitute an immediate danger to human health.

The ‘Best before’ date relates to food quality. Food can be sold, donated and consumed after this date. The use of the ‘Best before’ date is mandatory under EU and UK law for all foods other than those for which a ‘Use by’ date is required.

The guidance aims to persuade food manufacturers to change their labelling, while staying within that framework, in order to make it easier for consumers to understand what they can and cannot do with food they purchase. It begs the question of manufacturers – do we really need to apply a ‘Use by’ date?

It’s not so much a public health issue as a waste issue; because consumers are concerned about the risks of out-of-date food or food going off, they unwittingly dispose of food when they do not need to or store it in a way that means it has to be thrown away before it has been used up.

The best practice is therefore to only apply a ‘Use by’ date when there is a food safety reason – otherwise use ‘Best before’. A ‘Use by’ date is appropriate for products such as sandwiches, but is not appropriate for bread, which is not likely to cause a microbiological risk to health after a short period of time.

All food manufacturers are being called upon to include only one date label on a product – and ‘Display until’ is a definite no-no.

While the guidance calls on food manufacturers to stick to ‘Use by’ or ‘Best before’, there are still some exceptions. ‘Best before end’ can be applied, but only where a month or year is given as the expiry date.

The best practice advice is not to use an ‘open’ life where possible. However, where the open life is for food safety reasons, it should be made much more prominent on the front of the pack and use the term ‘Use within X days of opening’. Similarly, where open life is important for food quality, the label ‘Best within X days of opening’ should be used.

One aspect of the guidance is particularly pertinent to baking – the fact that a huge number of people think the best way to keep bread is to put it in the fridge. Bread stales around six times more quickly if kept in the fridge and this could translate to a lot of food waste. Bread-making businesses are being urged to retain, and increase the use of, the ‘Do not refrigerate’ guidance on relevant bread products.

In my opinion, these recommendations are a welcome development to tackle a frustratingly over-cautious and ill-informed approach to food information that has contributed massively to food wastage at home and, consequently, increased food bills for consumers. It retains compliance with the letter of the law, while changing the focus for manufacturers from asking “What do we have to do?” to “What could we do?”

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