Andrew Vine: Wasteful food labelling is well past its sell-by date

A RUMMAGE through the fridge the other day unearthed a couple of salmon fillets that had somehow been overlooked over the course of the past week.

They had gone about four days past the use-by date, but looked and smelt fine, so into the oven they went. If I thought there was anything fishy about them when they came out, a couple of cats that I know would be in for an unexpected treat.

The salmon was, of course, perfectly good. But the slight doubt in my mind over whether it should go in the oven or the bin was another reminder of how so many of us are subject to the tyranny of use-by labelling that has morphed from being sensible advice into proscriptive of when food should be discarded as inedible.

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This was a point made with some force last week in a report by a Government advisory body, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), which concluded that excessive caution over how long food remains safe to eat is costing households £600m a year.

That figure averages about £25 per household in food chucked away because it has exceeded its sell-by date, and equates to 250,000 tonnes being dumped.

What a grievous waste of money and food this is – and the reason for it is absurdly simple according to WRAP. Retailers are erring too far on the side of caution, and setting unnecessarily early use-by dates.

Extending them by a day or two would not harm the quality of the food, but prevent all that waste.

Nobody can blame retailers for being cautious. Food safety is at the top of their list of priorities, and consumers becoming ill as a result of eating something dodgy would be commercially very damaging.

Even so, WRAP also found that in setting safety margins retailers sometimes assumed that consumers would not follow guidance on how to store food, including putting it in a fridge.

Well, if some consumers don’t have the basic common sense to refrigerate the shopping that needs to be kept cool, more fool them, since it’s liable to cause them problems way before it reaches the use-by date. This should not be a reason for vast quantities of food going into landfill.

But even sensible people who store and prepare their food properly can get jittery about the dates that festoon every pre-packaged product, despite the evidence of their eyes and noses telling them that it will not lay them low with a stomach bug.

That’s partly because so many consumers put their faith in the big supermarket chains to sell them the best produce they can afford to buy. They rely on the cooking instructions that come with it, and if they take that as read, the use-by date takes on the authority of an order.

There is also on the part of many a surprising lack of confidence about the handling and cooking of raw food, fostered by the boom in ready meals 
that require no more skill on the part of those preparing them than turning the oven on or setting the minutes on the microwave timer.

By no means are shoppers all slavish about use-by dates. The permanent scrum in my local supermarket around the cabinet selling discounted yellow-ticketed food supposedly needing to be used that day suggests that there are lots not put off by the labels.

Nevertheless, for all the food that is dumped into supermarket skips once it goes beyond use-by dates, an awful lot more is going into household wheelie bins which is tantamount to families throwing away £10 notes.

Maybe it’s an inevitable consequence of living in a mostly affluent society that people would rather throw away food than trust their instincts over whether it remains fit to eat.

The big retailers do have a part to play in this. If they followed WRAP’s recommendations to extend use-by dates, they would be making a useful contribution to the drive to minimise the amount of waste we all produce.

They could also help by introducing more clarity into labelling. Shoppers 
can get confused between “use-by” and “best before”, and it would be best if the latter vanished.

Ultimately, though, it’s up to consumers to both manage their shopping habits and have more confidence in the way they regard food.

Buying enough for the week, instead of excessive amounts that end up being thrown away, would be a start. And having more faith in what their eyes and sense of smell tell them once their meat or fish is unwrapped is the most reliable guide of all to what is fit to eat.

It would be foolish to abandon use-by dates altogether, and foolhardy of consumers to let food go weeks beyond those guidelines before eating it.

The dates are a useful guideline, but 
a day or two here and there won’t make any difference.

Stemming the flow of waste into landfill, and the associated cost to consumers, will.