Legal wrangle throws spotlight on food labelling

A High Court judgment last week reopened the debate about product 'use-by' dates, to the dismay of some campaigners

A landmark legal case revolving around a batch of frozen pigs' tongues could change the way food use-by dates are enforced in the country.

High Court judges ruled earlier last week that a business accused of selling food past its use-by date could counter a prosecution under food labelling laws by showing the product had in fact not needed a use-by date. Consumer experts fear that this interpretation could allow retailers to sell out-of-date food. The matter is being viewed as a test case for use-by dates, and similar cases across the country are being put on hold while it is dealt with.

"All consumers should have this case on their radar because this could determine whether or not standards are weakened that currently protect public health," said Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London. He added there was still unnecessarily high food poisoning and one of the means by which consumers had been protected was through the "messy system" of sell-by dates and so on. He said the system did need "sorting out" but, in the process, there should not be a weakening of hygiene.

In September, Gwent magistrates cleared a food processing business, Douglas Willis, of 31 charges brought under food labelling laws by trading standard officers at Torfaen County Borough Council, after they found meat products – including pigs' tongues – past their use-by dates in freezers. The company's lawyers successfully argued there was no case to answer because the food was frozen and therefore was not highly perishable and did not need a use-by date.

The magistrates said the council failed to prove a necessary factor required under European law: that the food was highly perishable and, in consequence, likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health. However, the local authority challenged the decision and High Court judges last week ruled that "the Justices erred in their approach in law" and ordered that the case should be reheard by a different panel. However, they stressed that neither the prosecution nor the respondent had won the appeal.

In their ruling, Lord Justice Aikens and Mr Justice Maddison said, in order to obtain a conviction under food labelling laws for selling food past its use-by date, prosecutors have to prove that – at the point of delivery to the consumer or a caterer – the food is highly perishable and needs a use-by date. However, if a product which requires a use-by date is then frozen, the need for a date still stands. The burden would be on the defendant to demonstrate a use-by label had not been required. If caught by trading standards officers, a retailer selling out-of-date food could attempt to prove that the food was not highly perishable and so did not need a use-by date.

Torfaen's lawyers have applied to the High Court for a certificate stating that the issues raised in the case are ones of general public importance. If granted, it is likely the council will petition the Supreme Court for permission to appeal.

The legal wrangle comes at a time when a wider debate is raging over use-by dates. They cause supermarkets and consumers to throw away huge amounts of food every year. According to Wrap, the government-funded waste reduction adviser, households throw away 7.2 million tons of food each year. More than half of that is £12bn worth of food that could have been eaten.

A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said the department was "still considering the full implications of the judgment".

Date lines: What supermarket packaging labels mean

Use by Relates to food safety and appears on products that go off quickly. The Food Standards Agency advises there should be no flexibility with a use-by date and that it can be dangerous to eat foods beyond this date.

Best before Relates to food quality and appears on products with a longer shelf life. Using food after the best-before date does not mean it is unsafe, but the quality – such as taste – may not be as good. It is not against the law to sell food past its best-before date. Either a use-by or best-before date is required under European law.

Sell by This has nothing to do with labelling regulations, as the marking is usually put on by retailers to help staff with stock rotation.

Display until Like the sell-by date, this is for supermarket staff. Consumers should ignore sell-by and display-until dates.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions