This morning’s publication of DEFRA’s new guidelines is welcome in that it discourages the use of ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’ marks on food – of no value to the consumer, merely designed to help the retailer with their stock control. But does it really help the befuddled consumer to know how long they can keep a food before they need to add it to the 8.3 millions tonnes of food waste that we mange to accumulate each year because they have not got round to eating it?
We are left with ‘Best before’ and ‘Use by’, the first of which relates to the eating quality of the food, the second to whether or not it is likely to poison you. But, if you had just landed from Mars – or even from Europe – would that be clear to you? Maybe I am particularly dull, but the subtlety escapes me. I know that both are slightly longer (a very BAD thing in the eyes of food packagers) but would not ‘Tastes best before’ and ‘Safe until’ not be a lot clearer?
Which? makes the same point in their press release this morning:
In an online survey of 1,009 members of the GB public carried out by Which? in June 2011, 46% said they were consciously trying to waste less food. Half of those are checking ‘use by’ dates more, so they throw away less food. However, nearly 4 in 10 (37%) have stopped adhering to some ‘use by’ dates, instead using other means of checking whether food has gone off, like whether the food looks and smells alright. But you cannot identify harmful bacteria this way. Which? wants DEFRA and the FSA … to ensure that there is no room for confusion.
(For those who are interested in consumer understanding of labeling there is an interesting passage in the WRAP report on consumer behaviour in relation to labeling although this is now quite old  so it is to be hoped that understanding may have moved on. See page 3 – Executive report – Guidance dates: Understanding of dates.)
I do understand that labeling is an incredibly difficult and contentious area, and nowhere more so than in labelling food for allergens but it is SO important for consumers, especially for allergic consumers, to get it right. Good work is being done in terms of the major life threatening allergies and the dreaded ‘may contain’ warning with manufacturers giving much more specific information about contamination levels: ‘made in a factory which also uses nuts’ rather than just ‘may contain nuts’ is already a good start. But there are still no regulations governing this information so it remains patchily applied.
Moreover, even though the declaration of major allergens in ingredients lists is now mandatory, there are no regulations governing ‘freefrom’ flashes on the front of packs – ‘gluten free’, ‘milk free’,’nut free’ etc. And although the survey of freefrom shoppers that we carried out at last year’s Allergy Show was in no way scientific, it indicated that 80% of shoppers wanted to see these flashes on the front of packs and would rely on them rather than checking the ingredients list.
Caveat – oh allergic – emptor…..