Page last updated at 16:43 GMT, Tuesday, 9 June 2009 17:43 UK

Food sell-by dates may be ditched

Orange juice cartons
People need clearer advice on when to consume food or drink

The days of sell-by and best-before dates could be numbered as ministers look at ways of reducing the amount of food needlessly thrown away.

Ministers are considering phasing out some guidelines and re-phrasing others but face opposition from retailers who say it will not reduce food waste.

The idea is part of a new UK-wide strategy on packaging and recycling.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said people must "re-think" their attitudes and report cases of excess packaging.

'Bin tax'

However, officials from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) indicated the controversial "bin tax" would not be pursued.

A pilot for the scheme, which would have penalised people who left out the most household waste and rewarded the most regular recyclers, was effectively dropped earlier this year after no councils expressed an interest in it.

Scrapping best-before dates won't reduce food waste. Customer education will
Stephen Robertson
British Retail Consortium

On food, Mr Benn said many people were confused by the various guidelines and were disposing of perfectly edible items in huge quantities.

Instructions could be improved, he said, by focusing on whether food was still safe to eat by a certain date.

Sell-by and display-until labels - used by retailers for stock control - could be phased out completely if stores agree.

Ministers also want best-before and use-by guidelines - mandatory under European law where health and safety is concerned - to be more easily understood. The Food Standards Agency is now reviewing its guidance in this area.

"Too many of us are putting things in the bin simply because we are not sure, confused by the label or just playing safe," Mr Benn said.

Thousands of tonnes of food are thrown away unnecessarily every year at an estimated cost of £10bn.

Retail groups said existing labels were designed to help shoppers and ministers should focus on helping people understand them rather than making sweeping changes.

British Retail Consortium director general Stephen Robertson said: "Scrapping best-before dates won't reduce food waste. Customer education will."

"Date labels are there to help customers but they need to understand what they mean.

Retailers are working with the government to improve understanding and to help customers make better choices about buying, storing and using food at home."

New standards

The government is also encouraging shoppers to report cases of excess packaging to the authorities.

For the first time, there will be uniform standards across the UK on what is deemed to be excess packaging, making it easier for trading standards officers to take enforcement action.

It is hoped more retailers and manufacturers can be encouraged to reduce packaging and increase their use of recyclable materials.

But ministers have also warned they are prepared to prosecute firms which do not comply.

Other steps planned include more recycling points for cans and bottles in public squares and parks and a push towards packaging which can be refilled again and again.

Ministers say they are also considering banning glass and aluminium from landfill sites altogether.

Recycling groups said shoppers, retailers and public bodies needed to work together to make progress.

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