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Why shops find a ban on sell-by dates hard to swallow

Supermarkets are revolting – and say that the latest initiative to reduce food waste may backfire

Britain's biggest supermarkets believe the Government's plans to change date codes on food will end up causing more waste and confusing consumers over what is safe to eat. Despite claiming it had the full backing of the industry, retailers are understood to be privately frustrated at Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman's scheme to overhaul the current labelling system.

Ms Spelman was accused of reintroducing the largely defunct term "sell by" when announcing the plans, despite the fact it has already been eradicated from the vast majority of stores. It is feared that stopping the practice of marking items "display until" could lead to less efficient stock rotation, higher prices and ultimately more food going off. The new guidance – which is not legally enforceable and took three years to draw up – was dismissed by one retail source as "changing nothing".

Designed to cut down on the annual £12bn worth of food thrown away each year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states that in future, food packaging should only carry either a "use by" or "best before" date while "sell by" and "display until" labels used for stock rotation should be removed.

Ms Spelman insisted the system, which is backed by the Food Standards Agency, would be safer and simpler for the consumer. "There are products that have several dates on them; 'use-by', 'best before'. Sometimes it says 'display until', which is not relevant at all by the time it's sitting in your fridge," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "So I can understand when people – particularly young people starting out with shopping – say 'I'm not sure about this; better throw it away'."

It is estimated that more than 60 per cent of the 8.3m tonnes of UK household food and drink waste annually is disposed of unnecessarily, costing the average household with children £680 a year. The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents the interests of the major supermarkets, said the Government should concentrate on educating the public on the current system which it insisted was not complicated.

BRC food director Andrew Opie said: "Helping consumers understand food past its best before date can still be eaten or cooked could contribute to reducing food waste and saving people money. The Government should be spreading that message, not focusing on retail practices." Asda said it had removed sell by dates several years ago and used a "whoops" sticker to indicate that products were nearing the end of their shelf life. None of its out-of-date food was sent to landfill but was recycled as energy.

A spokesman for Sainsbury's said it did not use the term "sell by" and had been reducing the number of items with the "display until" label since January. Waitrose said the focus should be on helping consumers understand the difference between "use by" and "best-before".

An investigation by the Waste and Resources Action Programme, whose research inspired the new guidelines, found that the number of products bearing two date codes had reduced significantly from 39 per cent in 2009 to 29 per cent this year.

Its director of design and waste prevention, Richard Swannell, said the changes could help people save up to £50 a month by reducing waste.

He added: "There are other ways that you can provide information on stock control that don't confuse customers."

What the labels mean

Best before

Indicates the date when quality will begin to decline, although it remains safe to consume. Used on tinned and jarred items but also on bagged fruit such as apples. Will be retained.

Display until

Tells retail staff how long a fresh item such as milk should be displayed in the shop. Helps with stock rotation and reduces waste, but does not indicate whether an item is safe to consume so is often accompanied by a use-by date.

Use by

Tells consumers the date after which an item of food is unsafe to eat and must be thrown away. Selling food which has passed its use-by date is already illegal and punishable by a £20,000 fine. Will be retained for ready meals including sandwiches, soft cheese and smoked fish.

Sell by

Largely-defunct term that assisted in stock rotation but does not tell the consumer when the product is no longer safe to eat. The Government wants retailers to stop using it altogether.

Vox pop

Beth Roberts-Miller, 34

“I don’t pay any attention to the sell-by date – it’s always fine for a few days after isn’t it? I try not to waste too muchand I know the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘display until’, but I will throw something out if it really smells.”

Richard Lay, 36

“I’m careful not to waste too much – who can afford to with the current economic circumstances? It’s patronising of theGovernment to say people get confused about what to throw out. Guidance is no substitute for common sense.”

Kim Nataraja, 68

“It’s morally wrong to throw away food. I worry about all the food that gets left over at supermarkets – what happens toit? A friend in New York lives perfectly well from things the shops throw out – it shouldn’t end up in the bin.”

Chaled Jghalef, 41

“I used to work in a supermarket and they wasted so much food. I didn’t know the difference between sell-by date and use-by date, so it’s good the Government wants to make it clearer. We must stop buying and selling more than we need.”