Retailers drop food best before dates
In the UK we throw away four and a half million tonnes of food every year. Part of this is because of “best before dates”, a well intentioned step to inform shoppers but one which, regrettably, fools consumers into thinking food’s unsafe when it isn’t. Now the supermarket Waitrose is joining the ranks of Marks & Spencer, the Co Op, and Tesco, to help combat this crisis, by doing away with these dates on some food items. Earlier in the year, Morrisons did the same and urged their customers to use a “sniff test” instead! Julia Ravey has been rifling through her fridge to find out what she might otherwise have thrown out…
Julia - So in my fridge at the minute, it's looking pretty barren. The fridge isn't at its full capacity, I need to do a shop actually, but I was just having a look to see what produce I have in the fridge and the labels that are on that produce. I have some apples in the fridge, which I buy loose. With these, I'd still be definitely eating them. I also have some of my favorite food ever- cherry tomatoes. And these say 'best before the 2nd of August'. I'd still eat them. And then I have some kale, which also says second of August. Now, kale, when it's over the best before date, it tastes a lot drier. And I don't know if that's a placebo effect of me seeing the date, but I normally like to eat kale before that best before date. And it's exactly this labeling that has been removed in Waitrose this week, and in other supermarkets as well across the UK. The removal of labels isn't just random. It's actually based on scientific data. And this was acquired by the company WRAP. I spoke to Estelle Herszenhorn, a special advisor at WRAP, who told me some of the really shocking statistics around how much food waste we have in the UK.
Estelle - The average family throws away around 700 pounds worth of food each year and wasting food feeds climate change. So it's something that's really important to focus on.
Julia - And what exactly are you looking at in order to help us reduce our food waste?
Estelle - There are three key things that can really help reduce household food waste. One, being able to buy more fruit and veg items loose. That's important so we can buy the amount that we need. The second area is around removing date labels. So, best before dates tend to be the date on fruit and veg, but there's no requirement to have those date labels on fruit and veg in the UK. And then the third action is around what we can do in our homes to get more of our fruit and veg stored in the right place so it stays fresher for longer.
Julia - How do food labels influence our decisions to throw them away?
Estelle - So we did a whole tranche of work last year, which involved a whole range of different scientific studies and analysis, and one really interesting part of it was around the way that we interact with fruit and veg when there's a date label on it and when there isn't. And in those tests, we saw some really staggering results. So, we showed people five different fruit and veg items that are quite often wasted in our homes. So we looked at apples, bananas, broccoli, cucumber, and potatoes. And as part of the study, we showed 1500 people images of each of those items at various different stages of deterioration. So if you imagine a really green under-ripe banana, then through to a super over-ripe black banana that you'd maybe use in a smoothie or the COVID popular banana bread. And then we showed people those same images, some with a date label on and some without. The really staggering results we found was that the date label being there was having a much bigger impact on people's choices. When we showed people an image of a yellow banana - so, perfect -when there was a date label on it around a third of people said that they would throw that item away. Whereas when there wasn't a date label, that same image, only 3% of people said they would throw the item away. And that was the same when we looked at all the different fruit and veg items that we tested. We also looked at trying to better understand what the scale of impact would be on reducing food waste. If we were to be able to get rid of those date labels. And what we've estimated is that around 50,000 tons, so that's 7 million shopping baskets worth of fruit and veg could be saved from becoming waste in our homes. If date labels were removed from fruit and veg.
Julia - So it seems that we are quite heavily influenced by those date labels. So if we were to remove them and we had food without that best before on, are there ways in our homes that we can keep fruit and vegetables fresh for longer?
Estelle - Absolutely potatoes and apples lasted months longer, two months longer, if you store them in the fridge compared within the fruit bowl or on the side. And broccoli, which is obviously a more perishable item, it's gonna go off quicker than apples and potatoes, that lasted two weeks longer. If it was stored in the fridge below five degrees, which is the magic number. So something we can all do to make our food stay fresher for longer is to put fruit and veg in our fridge.