Promise to review guidance on ‘best before’ dates as charities highlight it as major barrier for surplus food donation

M&S launches nationwide food waste scheme
Neighbourly has worked with M&S to redistribute surplus food from the retailer
Action is to be taken to review guidance on food products’ best before dates as part of a drive to facilitate food redistribution from retailers to community programmes.

Following a round table event with over 50 industry leaders in July, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), along with WRAP and Defra, has pledged to begin a review of date marking guidance of foods.

Seven million tonnes of food is thrown away every year in the UK, over half of which is still good enough to consume. Platforms such as FareShare and Neighbourly are making significant impacts on food waste reduction by facilitating the redistribution of unsold food from supermarkets and retailers to charities and community organisations.

However, it has been recognised that a lack of guidance regarding the safe handling of food in relation to date labelling is posing as a significant problem to food redistribution efforts and is preventing the full potential of such programmes being reached.

According to a major study published by WRAP in May, 47,000 tonnes of food waste was redistributed from the grocery sector in 2015, but that a further 270,000 tonnes may be suitable for redistribution.

Guidance specifically for redistributed food

The event focused specifically on food redistribution and how improvements in food safety labelling and guidance, or better education around it, might increase the volume of surplus fresh food donated and used by the voluntary sector.

Andrew Parry, Special Advisor for Food and Drink at WRAP, said: “We found that over a million tonnes of avoidable food waste are produced in the manufacture and sale of food in the UK, worth £1.9 billion, and that food redistribution could be increased by at least four-fold. When food surpluses cannot be avoided, redistribution to feed people is imperative and reviewing date marking and related guidance is an important element of ensuring this happens.”

The FSA says that a number of key issues were highlighted at the event and that the three organisations will consider extending guidance to include how food can be redistributed safely. This will cover the circumstances under which food business operators can freeze food prior to donating it to a charity partner, which was raised as a way of reducing some of the logistical barriers of redistributing products with a short shelf life. 

An issue that was raised several times at the event was the impact, application and understanding of date labelling, especially in relation to ‘best before’ dates. It was identified that guidance was needed relating specifically to date marking on food for redistribution, as well as on food for sale.

Charities in ‘urgent’ need of surplus food action
Participants in the event suggested that staff need simple and visual guidance on what and when to take products off shelves fro redistribution where there is no date (for example in the case of fresh and loose produce) and that short use-by dates waste food that is still edible beyond their sell-by date.

It was also questioned whether best-before-end labels should be internal for trade and possibly coded so that consumers don’t see it, as such labels create a sense of second-class food that prevents redistribution. The possibility of introducing a ‘safe until’ date to replace ‘best before’ and ‘use-by’ labels to remove confusion was also suggested at the event.

The issue of liability is a main issue that holds back food redistribution. Confusion over who has responsibility for food once it has been given to charity and how much auditing should take place was raised.

In the USA, the Bill Emerson ‘Good Samaritan’ Act was created to encourage food donation by protecting donors from liability and civil charges should a product donated in good faith later cause harm to a recipient except in cases of ‘gross negligence’.

Steve Wearne, Director of Policy for the FSA, said: “These discussions have been extremely useful in bringing to light the key barriers to food redistribution for all those involved. It has clearly highlighted the areas where the FSA can focus its efforts to ensure that as much surplus food as possible is safely redistributed. That's why we have begun the process, working with Defra and WRAP, of reviewing the date marking guidance, which we aim to publish by July 2017.”

A summary of the food redistribution event is available on the FSA's website.

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