Supermarkets are frightening shoppers into throwing away hundreds of pounds of perfectly good food every year by using ‘best-before’ labels. Here, The Mail on Sunday reveals some of their sneaky secrets – and how you can beat the shops at their own game and cut your grocery bill by a third. We also report on how a crackdown on the scare tactics adopted by supermarkets could revolutionise the way we food shop.
More than seven million tons of unused food is scraped into kitchen bins every year, more than half of which is still good enough to eat.
Households spend an average £57 a week on groceries – £3,000 a year – according to the Office for National Statistics. But a family of four is thought to throw away £700 of this food as waste.
Waste & Resources Action Programme says the seven million tons of food that are wasted each year costs shoppers £13 billion. Every day, we throw away an astonishing one million bananas
A major reason for discarding food is the confusing hotchpotch of labels that tell us when we must eat it by. Behind these ‘sell-by’, ‘best-before’ and ‘display until’ labels is a multi-million pound sales ruse where shops encourage us to buy more food than we need.
The Government aims to crack down on this deception. The Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs have joined forces with the not-for-profit Waste & Resources Action Programme to draw up a blueprint for change.
A spokeswoman for the Food Standards Agency says: ‘We want better food labelling as there is far too much food thrown out that is perfectly edible.’
Earlier this year, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee criticised supermarkets for their role in creating food waste – by misusing ‘best-before’ dates and throwing out good fruit and vegetables not deemed to be the right shape.
It concluded: ‘We believe the current date labelling on food is potentially misleading and unnecessarily confuses customers.’
In response, the British Retail Consortium, representing retailers, says: ‘Anything that creates a better understanding of best-before food labelling and helps stop food waste is welcomed by the industry.’
A major reason for discarding food is the confusing hotchpotch of labels
Crack the code of best-before labels
Shoppers need only take note of ‘use-by’ and ‘best-before’ labels. The ‘use-by’ information should be heeded as it is reserved for highly perishable food such as poultry, red meats and fish. If you sniff the contents and they do not smell right then go no further – you could suffer a dose of food poisoning.
‘Best-before’ is more an indicator of quality than a health alarm bell. It is used for frozen, dried and tinned food and once it expires the food may lose flavour. Under European Union law it is illegal for shops to sell produce that is beyond its ‘use-by’ date but they can sell produce past its ‘best-before’ date.
You need not take any heed of food labels such as ‘display until’, ‘consume within’ and ‘sell-by’. These are simply added for shopkeepers to shift stock. It is expected that as a result of the Government review only ‘use-by’ dates will survive, on perishable goods such as eggs, dairy products, meat and fish. Their shelf life may also be extended by a day or two.
Throw perishables a lifeline
Waste & Resources Action Programme says the seven million tons of food that are wasted each year costs shoppers £13 billion.
Every day, we throw away an astonishing six million potatoes, three million apples, one million bananas, a million unopened yogurt pots and almost half a million ready meals. The charity’s Kirsty Warren says: ‘You can cut waste easily. For example, storing potatoes in a dark cupboard rather than a fridge makes them last much longer and if they grow sprouts they will taste just as good.’
For apples a fridge is the best storage area as it can extend their life by several weeks. Bananas should be kept separate from other fruit and can be frozen if they are not going to be eaten quickly. Yogurts can be turned into ice cream if they are close to their use-by date.
The biggest waste in terms of cost is meat and fish – accounting for almost a fifth of all food needlessly thrown out and worth £2 billion a year. This is followed by fresh vegetables and salad. Warren says: ‘The freezer acts like a pause button on food. So do not forget it is there. Try to have a freezer meal one day a week.’
Saving a packet: Heidi Brown, with son Fin, uses online shops which discount food
The best way to bag a best-before bargain
A growing number of shops offer discounts on food near the end of its shelf life.
Heidi Brown, 34, from Eastbourne in East Sussex, knocks £500 a year off her food bill by shopping this way.
She lives with partner Chris Tuppen, 37, son Fin, aged four, and daughter Emmie, four months. Heidi, an office administrator, uses online shop Approved Food. It sells products close to – or past – their best-before date; food that could otherwise be dumped in landfill sites.
Rivals include Clearance XL and ‘social supermarket’ Niftie’s which runs online store Don’t Waste The Taste.
Kirsty Warren of charity Waste & Resources Action Programme says: ‘Often with food it is the packaging that has dated. For example, a cereal box advertising a major sporting event once it is over can be hard to sell so is often sold at a discount store.’
Beat inflation with supermarket sweep
Buying groceries when supermarkets reduce prices can keep a lid on food bills. Most supermarkets slap a yellow ‘reduced’ sticker on food at specific times of the day – a great way to pick up a bargain. Both Tesco and Co-op often start such sales – 25 per cent reductions – at 8am while Sainsbury’s and Asda commence at midday. By 5pm, the reductions can be as much as 50 per cent.
The biggest discounts – up to 75 per cent off – are from Morrisons and Co-op, between 7 and 9pm.
Support a food bank
Despite a third of the country’s food going to waste we are still charitable enough to stock food banks which feed more than a million people a year.
The majority of food banks are run by charity Trussell Trust. It has a 400-strong network of food banks countrywide. It relies on donations made through schools, churches and supermarkets.
Volunteers sort through the items and pass them on to vulnerable families – usually giving them three days’ worth of non-perishable food.
Those targeted are usually picked on the advice of health or social workers and are given vouchers to claim their food. For details of your nearest food bank – as well as how to help – visit website The Trussell Trust.