How To Solve The Food Wastage Crisis?

When you go into your local supermarket for your groceries, do you select the items which are at the front of the shelves? Probably not: More likely, you automatically look for the ones, often hidden at the back, which have the longest “best before”, “use by” and expiry dates”. According to research conducted by the National Federation of Women’s Institute (NFWI), reported by ITV News in May, less than half the people questioned understand the meaning of “best before” – a description which indicates that the food might not be at its “optimum quality” after the date specified but is still safe to eat.

As Mark Little, the Tesco supermarket chain’s “ Head of Food Waste” told ITV, many of their customers find the different date codes on the packaging confusing and so base their decision on whether or not to buy a product on its appearance rather than the label. This results in the supermarket often having to throw away perfectly edible food – especially, it seems, fruit and vegetables. On 8th October, the Guardian’s consumer affairs correspondent, Rebecca Smithers, quoted statistics issued by the Government’s advisory body “WRAP” (Waste & Resources Action Programme) indicating that around 7.3 million tonnes of household food worth £13 billion is discarded every year in the UK, 4.4 million tonnes of which still could be eaten but instead is put into the rubbish bin.

Smithers has consistently focused on this topic : On 6th October, she described as “shocking” the daily waste of 24 million slices of bread in Britain and on 25th September published the estimation by the United Nations that a third of the world’s food (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes as calculated by FAO, the Food & Agriculture Organization) is wasted while one in nine people across the globe remain undernourished. The major UK supermarkets, she noted have been held responsible for contributing to the country’s waste mountain “by sticking rigidly to quality specifications and routinely rejecting misshapen, but edible produce grown by suppliers”.

In May, Tesco responded to this criticism by removing “guidance dates” from about 70 of its fruit and vegetable lines and this month (as revealed in Smithers’ 8th October article) announced it will remove date labels from an additional 116 of its items – including apples, oranges, cabbages and asparagus. Although Tesco has portrayed this move as confirmation of its commitment to ensuring that no food that is safe for human consumption goes to waste, some sceptics may dismiss it merely as a ploy to sell more of its products and hence enhance its profits.

The NHS (National Health Service) has attempted to provide clarification of food labelling terminology. On its website, it explains that “use by” dates are for food that goes off quickly, such as smoked fish, meat products and ready-prepared salads. It warns against consuming food or drink after the specified date. “Doing so could put your health at risk. Any instructions, such as “eat within 3 days of opening” should be followed”. By contrast, “best before” dates, which appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods are about quality, not safety. “When the date is passed, it doesn’t mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture”.

There are, the NHS emphasises, special criteria for eggs: They have a “shelf life” of just 28 days, so by law, must reach the final consumer within 21 days from when they were laid by the hens, which then provides at least 7 days until the “best before” date expires. After that, the quality of the eggs will begin to deteriorate: “If any salmonella bacteria are present, they could multiply to high levels and could make the person ill”. The Sun newspaper considers “display until” and “sell by” labels to be rather less significant: The purpose of these, so it states, is to help the store’s employees with their jobs: “It means they don’t make any difference to shoppers, so you don’t need to worry about them”.

The Government’s “safety and hygiene” website (www.food.gov.uk) meanwhile cautions consumers not to trust “the sniff test”. Food can look and smell fine even after its “use by” date, it declares, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat. It could still be contaminated. Despite this advice, the Chief Executive Officer of Morrisons, Dalton Philips, has admitted to the Daily Mail journalist Darren Boyle that when at home, he has on occasions relied more on the “smell test” than on the “best before” or “use by” dates on the package. Indeed, the bosses of other large retailers such as Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsburys have also acknowledged in the survey referred to by Boyle that they ignore the expiry dates on their own food and “don’t pay attention to the ‘ridiculous’ labels on the food in their own fridge”.

Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on October 16th, 2018 by Colin D Gordon

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