Questions raised over labelling after Real Junk Food Project investigated for providing out-of-date produce

Food charity The Real Junk Food Project (TRJFP) is facing prosecution following claims by West Yorkshire Trading Standards (WYTSS) that it found more than 400 items past their use-by-date in the charity’s warehouse, which doubles as a waste food ‘supermarket’, in Pudsey, Leeds.

The RJFP's food waste supermarket in Pudsey offers produce on a pay-as-you-feel basis
TRJFP diverts food destined for landfill and cooks and serves it in its chain of cafes and offers unwanted food products in its food waste ‘supermarket’, the first of its kind in the UK, employing a ‘pay as you feel’ concept whereby customers can access the food in exchange for a financial contribution or volunteering, with some customers paying nothing.

In a formal invitation under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 delivered yesterday (6 June), the WYTSS invited TRJFP founder Adam Smith, who stated that RJFP had “not been shy” about the fact that it had provided food to the general public that had been deemed past its use-by-date, to a recorded interview under caution.

In a letter sent to Smith, it stated that officers carrying out an inspection at the charity’s warehouse on the Grangefield Industrial Estate found 444 items that, cumulatively, were 6,345 days past their use-by-date. The letter asked Smith to come to WYTSS’s premises to discuss possible offences that contravene the Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013.

Commenting on the invitation, Smith told Resource: “We found it laughable. They took a month to get back to us and we didn’t feel we had committed any kind of offence. Given the nature of the kind of food that we were supplying, it would not have posed any risk to the public. If it was meat, fish and shellfish and it was off and past its use-by-date, then I could understand, but they didn’t find any produce like that, it was all perfectly sealed, low-risk items which we felt were mislabeled.

“We felt we could put it in the public domain, but from their point of view, once it’s in the public domain, it’s breaking the law – simple as that. It doesn’t look like they’ll prosecute, but they could take it that far if they wanted to.”

Meanwhile, David Strover from WYTSS, told the BBC that it was unable to comment, except to say that “the Proprietor of TRJFP (Smith) will be able to put forward information as part of that investigation process. That will help inform the decision on what, if any, action will be taken."

Smith was notified yesterday that he was expected to attend the interview this morning (7 June) at 10am, but WYTSS adjourned the interview based on the fact that Smith and TRJFP representatives arrived with a prepared statement and requested more time to seek legal advice. The WYTSS decided not to record and advised the TRJFP not to offer food past its use-by-date in its ‘supermarket’.

“Mature conversation” needed over product labeling

Smith feels that there needs to be a serious conversation about use-by-dates and that the public needs to be better informed over how to handle food and store it correctly, saying: “We are ready to have a mature conversation, but there needs to be a degree of flexibility regarding who is involved in that conversation.

We need to talk about bread, says food redistribution charity
The project, which has set off a network around the world, intercepts products that would otherwise go to landfill
“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.

“We need to employ common sense and adhere to safe practices when handling food, but labeling is often redundant. We recently held a bistro at one of our cafes in Leeds, and we had some cheese that was clearly off; it smelled off and it had gone slimey, but it had not gone past its use-by-date.

“Do we really need best before and use-by-dates, or do we need more descriptions on how to handle the produce, how to store it correctly, and the importance of not exposing it to moisture and keeping it out of sunlight? Environmental conditions have a far greater bearing on the deterioration of a product rather than arbitrary use-by-dates.

“If a person is guided by the use-by-date, but didn’t know how to store it properly and it has actually gone off, then they could get sick. It’s not about the date, it’s the environment the product is kept in, and this needs to be made clear. The industry is confused by it, and the general public is confused by it.”

After speaking with Resource, Smith released a statement, which said: “The Real Junk Food Project recognises that approximately one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year, approximately 1.3 billion tonnes, gets lost or wasted. Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. Our organisation believes that it is a human right to have access to food and the scale and senselessness of food waste has to stop, and it needs to happen in our lifetime, to ensure the next generation do not suffer from our ignorance.

“As Trading Standards will appreciate, the regulations around food safety and hygiene are complex and technical and my current belief is that neither the Real Junk Food Project, nor any of its officers, has committed an offence in respect of this matter. However I am obliged, on behalf of the charity, to seek further advice before commenting any further in respect of this matter. I wish to note that in doing so, in no way am I seeking to obstruct the enquiries of Trading Standards and I shall of course be happy to attend a further interview and provide such information as may be required once the position has been properly considered.”

A piece missing in the middle of education

Similar points have been made by Dan Cluderay, founder of online retailer Approved Food, which purchases food and other groceries from further up the supply chain to stop it going to waste and selling it on at discount prices.

Cluderay told Resource: “Labelling has come on leaps and bounds for all sorts of different reasons in the last 15 years, but there’s a piece still to be done on it. Right now there’s ‘use by’ dates and ‘best before’ dates, there’s ‘sell by’ dates… and whatever other date you make up as you go along. I think we need to chop them down to two dates and then educate people that ‘use by’ is about health and safety, it’s microbiologists’ evidence and science that says this will make you ill, whereas ‘best before’ dates are a guide to the optimum quality.

“When best before dates came in no one ever educated my generation about what these dates were, and now there’s a whole load of people relying on them. It’s just that they’re misinformed, they’ll pull out a tin of beans out of the cupboard because it went out of date last week. If you’re treating a can of beans the same as you are chicken there’s a piece missing in the middle of education.”

Carina Millstone, Executive Director of international food waste charity Feedback, has also commented on The Real Junk Food Project's case, saying: “We are appalled to hear that Adam Smith, director of The Real Junk Food Project is under investigation for serving ‘out-of-date’ food... While ‘use by’ dates on some products are important for food safety, there’s a debate to be had on how widely applied these labels are, sometimes to food that really doesn’t need them. Only a month ago, a committee of MPs agreed with Feedback that ‘current date labelling is potentially misleading and unnecessarily confusing for customers’.

“The real crime here is the waste that is caused when people throw perfectly edible food away, because they are confused about which labels are important to follow and which are just guidelines. For example, ‘best before’ labels, which have nothing to do with food safety, often cause confusion. Supermarkets can and must find other ways to ensure effective stock rotation than misleading labels that help no one and cause vast amounts of waste.

“The Real Junk Food Project has been rightly feted for saving thousands of tonnes of food from an early grave and feeding thousands of people a good, healthy and delicious meal at their cafes. It’s time we all learned to trust our senses on when food is good to eat – and it’s time we found a better way to label our food to ensure nothing needlessly goes to waste.”

You can find out more about what the Real Junk Food Project do by visiting its website and can read more from Dan Cluderay in Resource’s feature interview.

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