Why Australian supermarkets can’t scrap ‘bizarre’ best-before dates

Sustainability groups are calling for unnecessary best-before dates on packaged fresh produce to be scrapped in an effort to cut down on household waste.

But stricter food standards mean waste initiatives adopted overseas are unlikely to make it to Australian shores anytime soon.

A number of British supermarkets such as Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Tesco have removed best-before dates on fresh food products.

Meanwhile, another British supermarket, Morrisons, scrapped use-by dates on milk in favour of customers using the ‘sniff test’ in January, with research from the European Union suggesting such moves could reduce household waste by 63 per cent.

A ‘best-before date’ is different from a ‘use-by’ date, which indicates when a product is no longer safe for consumption. Food with a best-before date can be sold and eaten after the date marked on the packaging, but may have lost some quality.

Ronni Kahn, the CEO of food rescue organisation OzHarvest, said widespread confusion around date labelling contributed to the 2.5 million tonnes of food wasted from homes each year.

She said adopting changes to best-before dates seen in other countries would help Australia reach its goal of halving food waste by 2030.

“The fact is we’ve got a target, so we’ve got to take bold action,” she said.

”I do believe they [supermarkets] are absolutely a part of the solution given, on any one day, most Australians walk into a supermarket.“

As inflation bites, many of the 1800 charities supplied by OzHarvest are struggling to feed those in need. In a recent survey, 32 per cent of charities said they could not meet demand, while the OzHarvest Market in Waterloo has gone from providing 1300 people in need with free food each week to 1700.

“Given that we’re facing such chronic food and vegetable shortages, there’s no doubt that phasing out unnecessary best-before dates would help,” Kahn said.

Grant Miles, owner of Melbourne’s ‘Cheaper Buy Miles’ discount supermarkets which sell products past their best-before dates, called for a “complete overhaul” of food labelling in Australia and a national education campaign.

“The best-before dates on so many products we sell in Australia are just completely absurd,” he said.

“The manufacturers and the retailers love putting the date on it because it encourages turnover.

“You can have the exact same product from different brands – such as yoghurt or soft cheeses – one has a best-before date and another a use-by date.”

He said his customer-base understood the difference between ‘best-before’ and ‘use-by’, but the larger majority of people were throwing out food unnecessarily.

Stop Food Waste Australia, an industry and government-funded research group, estimates Australian households every year spend between $2200 and $2700 on food that is wasted.

Chief operating officer Mark Barthel said implementing best-practice date labelling could reduce household food waste by about 10 per cent.

“That’s 250,000 tons of food not getting wasted in the home every year,” he said.

But Barthel, a sustainability expert who contributed to the research informing the recent date labelling changes in the UK, warned it would be some time before Australian regulators and retailers were comfortable making changes to date labels.

“We need to test whether the approach that’s been taken … in the UK is appropriate to the Australian context, and that consumers actually understand what’s going on,” he said.

“It’s probably going to be 18 months to two years before you actually see change in the supermarkets.”

Major retailers Woolworths and Aldi have committed to sending zero waste to landfill by 2025, and Coles will reduce the waste it sends to landfill by 85 per cent by the same date.

In a statement, a Woolworths spokesperson said any changes to food safety standards codes in Australia would “need additional engagement with the wider industry and government.”

Trinh Pham, who runs a workshop at Willoughby City Council’s monthly food swap, said it was “bizarre” for fruit and vegetables to have best-before dates.

“The date might be good still, but it might have been handled poorly,” she said. “I go for what looks fresh, what looks good.”

Penny Wood, who started attending the Chatswood food swap six months ago when her family could no longer keep up with eating all the produce from her lockdown garden, said she came along regularly because she wanted to help her two-year-old son Tom understand where his food came from.

“Gardening is an activity which will hopefully get him interested in the environment as he grows up,” she said.


Extracted from The Sydney Morning Herald

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