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WRAP seeks views on draft food labelling guidance

Views are being sought on new draft guidance on improvements to labeling on food products, published today (6 July) by WRAP.

7.3 million tonnes of household food is thrown away each year, around two million tonnes of which get tossed in the bin due to ‘not being used in time’. In February, WRAP declared that an estimated £1 billion of food waste could be saved by addressing existing gaps in guidance on food packaging.

The subsequent draft guidance, created in partnership with the various UK governments and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), seeks to assist packaging producers in helping to reduce household food waste and remove barriers to redistribution projects looking to donate surplus food from retailers to community groups and charities.

As well as the issue of informing consumers how best to treat their food and make the most of its edible life, labeling also has a role to play in ensuring the safe and legal use of surplus food created by retailers. WRAP’s research identified that in 2015, 270,000 tonnes of surplus food from manufacturing and retail could have been suitable for redistribution, whilst only 47,000 tonnes was actually redistributed.

Both providers and recipients told WRAP that there are significant barriers relating to date labels on surplus food packaging, and confusion around what can or cannot be done as dates approach or are passed.

Speaking in February, Steve Creed, Director of Business Programmes at WRAP, said: “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.”

The guidance addresses several key areas that could make a big difference, including the meaning of different labels and when to use them, the importance of maximising ‘open’ life and the need for correct storage advice.

Consultation on the draft guidance is open until 3 August, and WRAP is looking for comments in particular from large and small food businesses from the retail, hospitality and foodservice sectors, as well as from food producers and manufacturers and those involved in the redistribution of food surplus.

Meaning of labels

The guidance covers what the different date labels mean and how producers can decide which dates to print to be prevent food waste, as well as explaining the consequences of this decision.

‘Use by’ should only be used on food that, ‘from a microbiological point of view’, are highly perishable and therefore could pose, ‘after a short period’, an immediate danger to human health. However, these dates are often overused or mistaken for ‘best before’ dates, which simply inform retailers on when the product will be at optimum quality.

WRAP seeks views on draft food labelling guidance
Approved Food sells items that are often past their best before date
It is permissible to sell or redistribute food after the ‘Best Before’ date relating to it, provided it is still safe, fit for human consumption and not injurious to health.

Speaking to Resource earlier this year, Dan Cluderay, founder of retailer Approved Food, said that a lot of work has to be done on the understanding of date labels, as well as their frivolous use: “Right now there’s ‘use by’ dates and ‘best before’ dates, there’s ‘sell by’ dates, ‘display until’ dates and whatever other date you make up as you go along. We need to chop them down to two dates and then educate people that ‘use by’ is about health and safety… whereas ‘best before’ dates are a guide to the optimum quality… If you’re treating a can of beans the same as you are chicken there’s a piece missing in the middle of education.”

Even with this distinction being made clear, however, some feel that ‘use by’ dates can also be misleading. The Real Junk Food Project, which has seen the establishment of a network of ‘pay-as-you-feel’ cafes and even two food waste supermarkets, is currently being investigated by West Yorkshire Trading Standards for supplying food that is past its ‘use by’ date.

Founder Adam Smith told Resource that barriers like this show that ‘mature conversations’ need to be had with every part of the food supply chain about labelling: “You can’t just have government organisations like WRAP and Defra talking about use-by-dates without any input from organisations like ourselves. Given the fact we’ve stopped 2,000 tonnes of food waste from going to landfill, I feel we should be at the forefront of that discussion.”

Storage advice

It also stresses the importance of providing correct storage guidance, like fridge temperature and freezing advice. Freezers can be thought of as vital ‘pause buttons’ for food according to the FSA, but a survey carried out by the agency last year revealed that a number of myths are stopping many consumers from using the freezer properly.

Among the findings from the survey of 1,500 people was the revelation that 43 per cent think food should only be frozen on the day of purchase and that 38 per cent believe it is dangerous to refreeze meat after it was cooked. Steve Wearne, Director of Policy at the FSA, commented: “The freezer is like a pause button, so you can freeze foods right up to the 'use-by' date.

WRAP seeks views on draft food labeling guidance
“Our research shows that many of the fears the public has about freezing food are unfounded and we need to ensure they know the facts. Thirty-one per cent of the people we spoke to said that more information about how to safely freeze food would help them to reduce their food waste.”

A separate report by WRAP, published in February, also reinforced the value of putting the snowflake symbol (right) on products that are suitable for home freezing, after the label’s use was found to have declined. Though WRAP’s Retailer Survey found that ‘good progress’ has been made in moving away from ‘freeze on the day of purchase’ guidance and towards ‘freeze before the date shown’, it said that more action is needed to inform shoppers on how to freeze meat and bakery products.

‘Open’ and ‘closed’ life

Another aspect that the guidance stresses is the need for packaging to maximise both ‘open’ and ‘closed’ life of products, whilst ensuring quality and safety are maintained.

WRAP says that food businesses are responsible for ensuring that the information provided on product life, including open life, is meaningful enough to ensure that consumers are aware of the conditions in which the food should be kept.

WRAP seeks views on draft food labelling guidance
Sainsbury's has started testing smart labels to give consumers more information on the open lives of products like ham
For example, if a product has an open life of three days, the consumer must have the instructions in order to store the food in the correct conditions that would enable it to be safe for three days after opening.

Earlier this week, Sainsbury’s announced that it had begun a trial of a ‘smart’ label on its own-brand ham that changes colour depending on how long the packet has been open for. It is hoped that this will lead consumers to recognise the ‘open’ life of the ham and not bin it before it is necessary.

WRAP research has estimated that by increasing the product life of all perishable foods by just one day could help prevent up to 0.2 million tonnes of household food waste, potentially saving consumers £600m a year.

Commenting on the guidance, Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey said: “The food and catering industries have made strong progress in reducing household food waste by a million tonnes since 2007, but there is still a way to go. We know that confusing labels can contribute to food waste by suggesting items need to be thrown away sooner than is necessary, which is why this new guidance will make packaging much clearer for people as they do their weekly shop.”

The draft guidance and consultation can be found on WRAP’s website.

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