Thousands of tonnes of food are binned annually in the UK because of confusion over use-by dates. But those willing to overlook the labels are finding big online discounts on food past its prime.
The UK appears to be a nation of food wasters, throwing away 8.3 million tonnes every year. That is a mountain of leftovers, enough to fill 4,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools, says the government's anti-waste arm, Wrap.
FOOD LABELS EXPLAINED
Use-by: the key date in terms of safety. Never eat food after this date. Found on cooked meats, soft cheeses and dairy-based desserts
Best-before: is about quality not safety. Food should be safe to eat after this date, but it might not be at its best. One exception is eggs
Sell-by/Display-until: this information is for the retailer, not the customer. It is mainly used for stock control purposes
Of that, 5.3 million tonnes could have been eaten, it claims.
The cause of much of this waste is down to confusion over date labels. A recent survey suggests half of people do not understand the differences between them.
More than one-third believe any product past its best-before date should not be eaten and 53% never eat fruit or vegetables after they have reached that date.
"We lead extremely busy lives and taking an interest in what's written on the date label and then understanding what that actually means is a step too far for a lot of us," says Julia Falcon from the Love Food Hate Waste Campaign.
"If people were more confident about what date labels mean they'd get round to eating more of their food rather than throwing it away."
Some are already comfortable with eating food past its prime. Two years ago Dan Cluderay quit his job as a market stall holder and set up an online supermarket specialising in products past their best-before date.
The recession has boosted sales of old fashioned cuts of meat
His stock includes tinned and packaged groceries, biscuits, crisps and fizzy drinks.
"In the last year sales have gone up 500%. The reason we've done well is that we're offering value for money," says Mr Cluderay. His Approved Foods site is one of a small number of online retailers selling short-dated or out-of-date best-before produce.
"At one time, health inspectors would say you can't have that if it's past the best-before date and now there's a complete shift in the way people think. Perhaps it is more acceptable to drink a can of pop that's a week out of date."
And, comparing the offers of such sites with High Street retail prices, it is easy to see where its success lies.
I've made a career of selling food past its best-before and never once had someone say 'you've made me ill'
Dan Cluderay Founder, Approved Foods
Chocolate brownies two weeks past their best-before date are 20p instead of 89p. A dozen tins of olives with a best-before date of last August are going for £1 - as are 10 bags of crisps a week out of date.
Brand names are often erased, but otherwise the website looks like any other online supermarket: customers add products to a basket, pay up and a courier delivers the shopping.
Customers are asked: "Can you find it cheaper? Tell us."
It is perfectly legal, and other online retailers are following suit. "Shops are allowed to sell food after its best-before date has passed," says Sam Montell, nutritionist for the Food Standards Agency.
"Best-before dates are concerned with quality rather than safety, so it doesn't mean that the food is dangerous if the date has passed."
Although date labels are now a ubiquitous part of grocery shopping, they were introduced relatively recently. Sell-by dates came in when supermarkets began to take over from milkmen, selling milk and cream.
Marks and Spencer started using them in the 1950s, to give people confidence in the products in their chilled cabinets.
Date labels came in in the 1950s
For some, attitudes towards food labels are now changing. Perhaps it is down to a rising awareness of how much food and drink is wasted, and the cost.
Recent Wrap data suggests £12bn worth is binned every year in the UK, or around £680 for the average family.
Secretary of State for the Environment Hilary Benn has suggested sell-by dates should be scrapped and best-befores ignored.
It is a notion many market traders subscribe to. At the Bullring Open Market in Birmingham, renowned for hundreds of stalls selling fresh produce, much of the food is sold without packaging or date labels.
"We're much too fussy now, it's out of all proportion. We don't use best-before or sell-by dates here," says stallholder John Harris. "A piece of cheese, you can take it home and it'll keep for a good three weeks."
But retailers argue that doing away with date labels would not reduce food waste. "Customer education will," says Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium.
"Date labels are there to help customers but they need to understand what they mean."
Below is a selection of your comments.
I worked for a food retailer and in just one week they threw away £8,000 of fresh fruit and vegetables. I think the total wastage that week was £12,000! Almost all of which was not only edible but still fresh. But the company had very strict rules on date rotation to ensure all that they sold was of the best quality. We would have loved to give this 'out of code' - but very edible - food to charity but Health and Safety would not allow it; so it all went in the bin. Then scavengers started to raid the bin so we had to pour bleach on it. The problem is that manufacturers use these dates to ensure that stores buy new stock. By having to throw away unsold 'old' stock they can control the flow of food out of their gates. Bob, N Wales
Doing away with date labels is impractical as there are certain products that can last, unopened, for months but will deteriorate eventually - such as boxed fruit juice. It is important to have some date information as such products can sit in cupboards for some time before being used. Phil, London
"But retailers argue that doing away with date labels would not reduce food waste." Of course it will, since people will rely on their eyes and nose to establish if something is edible or not. It's not rocket science. I regularly eat food that is past its best before date, and often find that even milk is still perfectly drinkable up to two weeks after the date predicted by the supermarkets. But it will also result in fewer sales, won't it Mr Robertson? And we can't have that, can we? Lolly, London, UK
My rule is that if it's fit to eat eat it and if it's not don't - after all you wouldn't eat something that had gone off just because it was within its sell by/use by date - so why chuck out something that hasn't gone off? Use a bit of common sense. Claire, Lancaster
I run a small coffee shop serving light lunches. Best-before dates help me keep stock rotating in the correct order. All staff are encouraged to look at the dates every day because if they find one with only one day to go they can take it home free of charge. A.K.Pearce, Reading
I think that this is another example of the government assuming that common sense has disappeared. It might be a better idea to have a 'packed-on' date, so you know when the food was first made and packed. Then you would have an idea of how long it would last. Having worked for a supermarket as a student, I saw so much senseless waste, and I also know that tins of peas you're going to buy could have been canned months earlier and so the use-by is quite redundant in this case. The sad thing is, the waste supermarkets produce cannot be passed on; it's destroyed rather than given to homeless shelters or something like that. Loulou W, Lancaster, UK
I grew up in the 50s and my mum always said to me, "if it looks and smells ok, then it probably is ok." My daughter however will not eat a tin of soup because it is two months out of date. We need clearer labelling. Jackie Morten, Ruislip, England
I think a lot of people suspect that manufacturers shorten these dates so that people will replace the product with a new one when really they don't need to. What seems really odd is seeing very short dates on items traditionally used as preservatives, such as vinegar. Alastair, Manchester
I myself have often used so called out-of-date tinned goods. I was of the impression that the invention of the tin in the war was to stop food from going bad. My father used to buy his weekly beer which was always months out of date and he never had a bad can. Kenneth Willis, Rudgwick England
Before we retired we ran a shop for 35 years. We never threw anything away if it was out-of-date or past its best-before date, it was taken down to our kitchen and used for the family. We are still alive. D Bowen, West Wales
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