Fact: Food waste is a huge global issue. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, 28% of the world’s agriculture area is used to produce food that ultimately goes to waste each year. In fact, The Guardian reports that nearly 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year — which is more than enough to sustain the one billion people suffering from hunger globally. Australians alone are throwing away more than 20% of the food from their weekly shop, which amounts to a massive four million tonnes of food waste. Every year.
Feeding the hungry is a compelling reason to reduce food waste, but it’s not the only one: Ben Schiller notes for FastCo that wasted food has a carbon dioxide impact equal to the output of one in four cars on the road worldwide.
But what, or who, is to blame?
While there are obvious issues of over buying and over cooking food, many are pointing the finger at “best-before” and “use-by” dates as the culprit. (Here is Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s definition of these codes.)
In Australia, manufacturers or food suppliers are responsible for determining the shelf life of food products, with regulations set out in the Food Standards Code. The Code states that all packaged foods with a shelf life of less than two years must have a date mark (We explain the difference between use-by and best-before date codes in this article).
However, it’s not that simple. While date codes are supposed to provide useful advice about when a product is at its best, some say they could be making the problem worse. Either the codes are causing consumers to become confused because they are unclear, or they are inadvertently encouraging people to throw out perfectly edible food.
In fact, it’s been reported that almost half of Australians go by the date label printed on the packaging, regardless of how the product looks or smells, and will often throw away food that is safe to eat. The same goes in America where studies show many consumers think their food is unsafe if the date they see on the label has already passed.
Food writer and investigative journalist Joanna Blythman commented in The Guardian that use-by and best-before dates have been endowed with an authority and a legitimacy they do not deserve. She argued that they “allow food manufacturers and supermarkets to play around with the concepts of freshness and safety”.
With the massive goal to reduce food waste, some countries have started to tackle the issue – here’s how:
UNITED STATES: Confronting consumer confusion
The USA spends an estimated US$218 billion on food that is never eaten every year, which for an average family of four, works out to be US$1,500 a year. Customer confusion over date labels is partly to blame. A recent industry collaboration report estimated that confusion over the meaning of date labels accounts for 20% of consumer waste of safe food – approximately US$29b of wasted consumer spending each year. This is no surprise when you consider that one dairy brand might stamp its milk with “best before”, another with “sell by”, another with “expires on”, and so on.
So what’s behind the problem? Dana Gunders, a senior scientist in the Food & Agriculture Program at the US Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook, reported in The Guardian that US manufacturers choose their own methods for determining expiration dates: some manufacturers use consumer focus groups to identify the “flavour peak”, while others use lab tests to determine the point at which the pathogen populations in food could make people sick.
To address the issue, in mid-2016 the Obama Administration introduced two Bills with the aim to standardise America’s food date-labelling system. Rather than the plethora of date formats currently in use, the new system would have just two: one to indicate peak quality and another for use on products that could make people ill if eaten after a certain date, such as deli meat and unpasteurised cheese.
Some major food companies, such as Nestle, quickly announced their support for the new labelling bills. After all, for some manufacturers, it means simply changing the printed messages on their packaging from “use by” to “best if used by”.
Walmart also revved into action. The retailer surveyed its suppliers and found that its products used 47 different varieties of date labels. As a result, it chose to standardise the date label on its home-brand food label, Great Value.
DENMARK & UK: Food-waste supermarkets open their doors
Another of the challenges causing food waste is not the consumers throwing food away, but the supermarkets being unable to sell food past its use-by date. Denmark has found a solution, and last year, for the first time, Copenhagen shoppers were able to buy surplus food from dedicated waste-food supermarket.
The concept works because selling expired food is legal in Denmark, so long as it is clearly advertised and there is no immediate danger to consuming it. Producers, local supermarkets and distributors donate all the products, which volunteers collect. The Wefood project, which donates all profits to charity, has proven so popular that a second store has already opened.
Following in its footsteps, British-based not-for-profit The Real Junk Food Project opened the UK’s first waste-food market in September last year. The market accepts food donations from local restaurants and supermarkets and sells it for whatever customers are willing to pay.
FRANCE: Supermarkets banned from wasting food
In 2016, France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food. Instead, supermarkets must donate to food banks and charities — or face penalties.
The notable point about this legislation is that it was ignited from a grassroots campaign by shoppers, anti-poverty campaigners and those opposed to food waste. The campaign led to a petition, which in turn led to a Bill.
France’s biggest supermarket group, Carrefour, has formally welcomed the law, and there are hopes that the French president will put pressure on the European Union to extend the law across the continent.
GERMANY: Interactive packaging (almost)
With the way that smart packaging has evolved over recent years, you’d be forgiven for wondering why intelligent packaging hasn’t replaced use-by dates.
In a 2013 RMIT University report, which examined where and why food waste occurs along the food supply chain, researchers explained how intelligent food packaging had the potential to provide real-time expiration data and temperature indicators, which are either time-based, activated by certain chemicals or use thermal sensors.
Since then, lots of entrepreneurs have designed smart labels that do exactly that. However, despite the promises of replacing expiration dates, we’re yet to see them on the supermarket shelves. Then, last year, Germany’s agriculture minister Christian Schmidt announced his plans for food products to use smart packaging that can inform consumers when it is no longer edible. We’re yet to see this come to fruition but watch this space.
Should we abolish expiration dates entirely?
Perhaps the best solution is to have no best-before or use-by dates at all. After all, we didn’t have them before the 1970s. But that may cause bigger problems.
The issue of food waste is growing, and the bigger it gets, the more urgent the call for change becomes. There’s no single country that has the solution yet, but if we constantly innovate (as with interactive packaging), test new concepts (such as waste-food supermarkets), and work together with consumers, manufacturers and retailers, there is still hope.
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