A new labelling initiative by food waste app Too Good To Go aims to get us sniffing and tasting certain food products to check for freshness if the ‘best before’ date has passed.
Backed by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the scheme will see brands add a new ‘look, smell, taste’ label to food packaging to make it clear that it’s safe to use your judgement on whether to eat them after their ‘best before’ date.
The new initiative does not apply to ‘use by’ dates, which should be adhered to for safety. These can be found on foods on which dangerous bacteria aren’t always identifiable by smell or taste, including meat, fish, prepared salads and cooked meats, such as ham.
Consumers currently face an array of ‘advisory’ labels – used by retailers to indicate freshness – on food products. While ‘use by’ dates must be displayed for safety reasons on foods that go off quickly, such as meat and fish, other labels are simply a guide. This has long been a source of confusion for consumers.
New labels will begin to appear on branded dairy products and other groceries throughout 2021, encouraging us to ‘look, smell, taste’ products to judge whether they are still fresh, and helping to keep more food on the table and out of the waste bin.
The scheme is also encouraging food manufacturers to reassess ‘use by’ dates, and only apply them to products where there is a genuine health risk to eating them late.
Save more food from the bin: Which? has found ten easy ways to reduce food waste at home.
What do food date labels mean?
Food producers and retailers use a variety of date labels to indicate how fresh their food is, but most of these are not required by law, and some food has no date labelling at all.
- Use by – Use by dates on food are the most important. When stored correctly, food is safe to eat up until the use by date, but not after it. You can’t always see, smell or taste the bacteria that cause food poisoning in these products, so don’t rely on the sniff test for food that is beyond its use by date.
- Best before – Best before labels, sometimes also marked as BBE or best before end, appear on a wide range of food items, including tinned, dried and frozen food, which have flexible consumption dates. They are an indication of quality, not safety. Food that is past its best before date may not look perfect, but will still be safe to eat.
- Display until – This is used by retailers as an instruction to staff, not consumers, to help with stock control. Like the best before date, food will still be safe to eat after the display until date has passed.
- No date label – Food items with no date label also have flexible consumption dates and will be safe to eat indefinitely, ‘sniff test’ depending (but do check that a required date stamp is not missing or damaged).
- Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste – This new label, shown below, is an alternative to best before, BBE or display until dates. It reminds consumers to use their senses to check food for freshness. If products look, smell and taste fresh, they can be eaten – there’s no need to throw them away.
If you are worried about eating a particular food product, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) also has an online food fact checker you can use to check particular items.
Which products are changing their labels?
So far, thirty brands have joined the scheme, pledging to add the ‘Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste’ label to packaging, change ‘use by’ labels to ‘best before’ on products with flexible consumption dates, and remove best before dates on products where they are not required.
Nestle will begin adding the label to key products in early 2021, along with Danone, which will include it on yoghurt products such as Activia, Actimel, Light & Free and Oykos. Bel Group’s The Laughing Cow cheese packs will contain an insert explaining best before dates and encouraging customers to look, smell and taste, while Arla plans to add the new label to all bottles of Cravendale milk.
Shefalee Loth, Which? nutritionist says: ‘This is a great move to reduce unnecessary food waste. However, when a food does have a ‘use by’ date this must be followed – consuming it past this date could make you ill. Use by dates are found on fresh meat and fish, cooked meats such as ham and on pre-prepared and washed salads. If you aren’t going to be able to use something before the use by date, freeze it and use it at a later date to avoid wasting it.’
How will simpler labels help tackle UK food waste?
Label confusion can lead to people throwing away perfectly good food, believing it to be ‘out of date’ and therefore inedible or unsafe.
Too Good To Go estimates 180,000 tonnes of food, costing half a billion pounds, is wasted in the UK each year because of misunderstandings around date labels.
For longer-lasting foods, learning to recognise when they are still edible will help everyone to minimise food waste, shop more sustainably and cut shopping bills.