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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?