Durability labels on food serve two main purposes – the ‘best before’ date indicates that consumers can use the food after the date shown, however it may be of lower quality, whilst the ‘use by’ date is stated on perishable foods where consumers risk food poisoning if it is consumed after the date stated.

Additionally, some food and drink items may display ‘sell by’ and ‘display until’ dates, contributing to a whirlwind of confusion that costs families up to $29bn annually in the US alone. So, in an attempt to simplify the system for both consumers and producers, the industry has vowed to streamline date labels to avoid any confusion in an attempt to reduce food waste.

Call to action: the Consumer Goods Forum and worldwide standardisation

In September last year, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a network of 400 of the biggest consumer goods companies operating across 70 countries, together with Champions 12.3, approved a call to action to standardise food date labels worldwide by 2020.

The CGF board, which includes companies like Tesco, Kellogg’s, Nestlé and Unilever, unanimously adopted the call to action, which outlines three steps retailers and food producers should take in order to simplify date labels and reduce food waste by 2020.

The three steps are:

  1. Only one label at a time;
  2. Choice of two labels: one expiration date for perishable items (for example, ‘use by’) and one food quality indicator for non-perishable items (for example, ‘best before);
  3. Educate consumers to better understand what date labels mean.

The global announcement expands national efforts to streamline date labels in the US, Japan and the UK – spearheaded by the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) – to the rest of the world.

Streamlined process: single date coding

Standardising food date labels is a simple and efficient way to reduce the volume of edible food thrown away by households, which in turn saves them money and reduces their environmental footprint. An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted worldwide each year, with the average UK household with children spending £700 a year on food that is then thrown away.

“Four years ago, Tesco was one of the first retailers to roll out single date coding across our fresh food and meat produce,” says Dave Lewis, CEO of Tesco. “All the evidence from WRAP and our own Tesco research has shown that streamlining date codes helps customers waste less food and it also reduces waste in our own operations.

“That’s why it’s so important we extend this practice to more companies in every country. Streamlining date labels worldwide by 2020 could be game-changing in the fight against global food waste.”

It also should be noted moreover, that food loss and waste is a major contributor to climate change, emitting approximately 8% of annual greenhouse gases, so this call to action should help to reduce these emissions.

WRAP leads the way: updating guidance and industry standards

Just two months before the CGF announcement, the UK’s WRAP, the Food Standards Agency and Defra drafted updated guidance for the use of date labels and related consumer advice. The aim of the guidance was to assist further reductions in food waste in the home, and remove key barriers to distribution.

Following a consultation period, the new guidance was launched on 29 November, setting out best practice in the choice and application of date labels and storage advice. It will be used by food manufacturers, retailers and brands as the industry standard in the UK, and brings together recommendations that ensure food is safe and adheres to legal requirements, with best practice information to ensure it is stored and used within time.

A notable new addition is the call to use logos alongside text, which consumers find easier to understand and quicker to interpret at a glance. The snowflake logo (to indicate the item is suitable for freezing) should be reinstated in cases where it may have been removed, while a ‘little blue fridge’ icon for foods that should be kept chilled, or that would benefit from being kept in the fridge, has been introduced.

“We know that confusing labels can contribute to food waste by suggesting that edible items need to be thrown away sooner than is necessary,” says UK environment minister, Thérèse Coffey. “This new guidance will make packaging much clearer for consumers, saving them money and reducing waste.”

Educating consumers: Love Food Hate Waste

In addition to simplifying the date labels on products, the CGF call to action recommends that companies partner with non-profit organisations and government agencies to educate consumers about what date labels actually mean and how to interpret them. Many consumers are currently unaware, for example, that many products are still safe to eat past the ‘best before’ date, and educating them on this could significantly reduce global food waste.

Education efforts could include in-store displays, web materials and public service announcements. The addition of simple logos, alongside text, on packaging can also help to educate consumers. WRAP, for example, is calling on consumers to ‘love their labels’, stressing that in order to tackle household food waste, there needs to be a shift in actions taken at home. Consumers should take the time to note these new date label guides, understand what they mean, and then act on the advice.

The organisation is using its Love Food Hate Waste campaign to deliver a series of digital campaigns about using and storing some of the most wasted foods in the UK, including potatoes, poultry and bread. The campaigns will focus on key behaviours driving food waste among 18-35 year olds, and will include elements relating to the best ways to store products at home.

With the average retailer stocking between 20,000 and 30,000 different products, changes will take time to appear on the shelves, however early indications are positive. Continued commitment from both producers and consumers will be vital to ensure that countries across the globe achieve the ambitious yet attainable United Nations goal of cutting in half per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level by 2030.