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Labelling changes could save £1 billion in food waste

An estimated £1 billion of food waste could be saved through changes to labelling and food packaging, according to a survey by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

Results from WRAP’s latest Retailer Survey, published today (27 February), suggest that 350,000 tonnes of avoidable household food waste could be saved by addressing gaps in guidance on the freezing and refrigerating of products.

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The survey included visits to 78 stores across England, Wales and Scotland between March 2015 and August 2016, sampling 9,000 items from nine major retailers to create a picture on progress in implementing changes for key products.

WRAP Director of Business Programmes Steve Creed commented: “Our report shows a mixed bag in terms of overall results. There are areas where good work continues to make a real difference and others where there is room for improvement. These insights provide a crucial snapshot of what industry is doing, and where more work is needed.”

While the report found that good progress has been made on confusing date labels on packaging, with the number of products containing two dates labels (e.g. ‘display until’ and ‘use by’) falling from almost 40 per cent in 2009 to less than three per cent in 2015, it concluded that more action is needed to inform consumers on how to store their products to maximise their edible lifetimes.

WRAP called for producers, government, local authorities and consumers to ‘unite in the food waste fight’ last month, after revealing that £13 billion of edible food was needlessly thrown away in 2015, a situation Friends of the Earth calls ‘the definition of a scandal’.

Despite a large amount of focus on the need to cut down on food waste, the amount of household food wasted has risen in recent years; in 2015, UK households threw away 7.3 million tonnes, up four per cent from 7.0 per cent in 2012. WRAP estimated that the carbon impact of this food is roughly equivalent to the emissions generated by a quarter of cars on UK roads.

Better guidance needed on freezing and refrigerating

There is an urgent need, the survey found, to reinforce the value of the snowflake symbol (right) on products that are suitable for home freezing, after the label’s use was found to have declined. Though ‘good progress’ has been made in moving away from ‘freeze on the day of purchase’ guidance towards ‘freeze before the date shown’, WRAP says that more action is needed to inform shoppers on how to freeze meat and bakery products.

Guidance on refrigerating products is another area that needs more work. The survey found that varying optimal temperatures were suggested on similar products like chilled cooking sauces, cheese and yoghurts, and a ‘significant’ proportion’ were found to cite temperatures outside the current guidelines, which say fridges should be kept below 5°C. This is a concern, says WRAP, as research suggests that as few as a third of UK fridges are set below 5°C , and another third operate above 9°C .

By encouraging householders to keep their fridges cooler and to store the right foods in the fridge through messaging and clearer labelling, WRAP estimates that an extra three days could be added to the lives of food products, saving households £280 million a year.

Positive developments

As well as necessary improvements, the survey noted that producers are getting better at explaining ‘open life’ guidance for how long a product should be used for once the packaging has been opened. However, with around two million tonnes of food discarded due to it ‘not being used in time’ WRAP says that the reduction in recommended open time for several products like chilled chicken, cooking sauces and milk remains ‘a significant area to address’.

There has also been an increase in the availability of smaller pack options, allowing for greater portion control, and hard cheese and pasteurised fruit juice, two high-volume products, have started using ‘Best before’ labels rather than ‘Use by’ ones, which WRAP says gives consumers more time to eat the product and ‘shows that industry can re-assess what date mark products should carry’.

Creed added: “We know that changes to packs and labels, which give clarity around date and storage options, can have a dramatic effect on how much good food ends up in the bin, so getting the right messages in place is critical. Around 150,000 tonnes of household food waste was avoided in 2015 compared to 2007, as a result of technical changes to products, saving UK families around £400 million a year.

“[These insights] will play a big part in re-energising the stall in household food waste reduction, that we recently identified. In fact, we are in discussions with the sector about trialling practical solutions that focus on making advice on storing and using our food as clear as possible.”

Updating guidance for producers

Following previous surveys, WRAP developed a series of recommendations for how changes to food packaging and labelling could help consumers create less food waste, including guidance on ‘How to apply date labels to help prevent food waste’, ‘Freezing guidance to prevent food waste’.

WRAP is now working with the government and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to update guidance on the application of on-pack date and related advice on things like storage and freezing. This work is due to open for public consultation in the spring, and WRAP expects to publish new guidance in the autumn.

Commenting on the survey, Heather Hancock, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, said: “The findings are very encouraging, but I think that there is still more that can be done, which is why the FSA is working closely with WRAP on updating the guidance on the application of on-pack dates and related storage advice. I believe it is important that information available on pack not only helps to ensure people have safe food, but that it makes it as easy as possible for them to manage and store their food to ensure less is wasted.”

The full WRAP Retailer Survey can be found on the organisation’s website.

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