How many times have you taken food out of the fridge or cupboard, seen that it’s out of date and put it straight in the bin or food waste – without actually checking whether it still looks and smells good to eat? Most of us are guilty of doing this at some point, if not regularly. 

While it might seem sensible to trust the product expiration date rather than our own health and safety standards, packaging instructions are contributing to our climate crisis. The confusion between use by and best before dates is driving excess food waste, and CPG brands can directly influence change by bringing greater clarity to food and beverage labels.    

Use by date versus best before: what’s the difference? 

For food and beverage brands, the difference between use by and best before dates may seem obvious. One marks the maximum limit at which products are suitable for consumption and is used for highly perishable goods such as ready-to-eat fresh produce, raw meat, fish, milk and eggs. The other is an indicator of when food is at its best, but goods can be eaten after this date – so long as they smell and look fit for consumption. 

For consumers, however, this distinction isn’t as clear-cut. Arla Foods research has found that a third of people bin foods once they reach their best before date, with only 15% of consumers fully confident they understand all the information on the label. Many just look at the date, not factoring in what’s written above it. 

It’s understandable that consumers err on the side of caution if they aren’t sure what the date means. But throwing out produce that could still be eaten is a critical global issue.

Over 1.6 billion tonnes of viable food is thrown away each year; equivalent to a third of worldwide food production. It’s a staggering imbalance when you consider that there are 815 million hungry people in the world – all of whom could be fed with the produce households put straight into the bin.  

Why is food waste such a big deal to consumers? 

Eating well is no longer just about taste and nutrition; people care about the environmental impact of their consumption habits as well. They want to live a greener life, and the environmental impact of food surplus weighs heavily on their minds.   

The carbon footprint of producing, cooking, packaging, shipping, storing and then disposing of unwanted food and drink is significant. Food production accounts for a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 8% of that comes purely from food waste. 

Appetite for eco-friendlier food options is being shown in the rise of zero waste restaurants and retail ranges. Shoppers are interested in emerging sustainable food brands, which repurpose produce or by-products traditionally thrown away to create edible alternatives. Examples of these include: 

  • Renewal Mill – a food upcycling company that turns leftovers from plant-based milk production into gluten-free flours and baking mixes
  • Rubies in the Rubble – award-winning ketchup and relishes created from fruit and veg that isn’t attractive enough to make it to the supermarket shelves. The brand also makes mayonnaise using aquafaba, the leftover liquid from chickpeas 
  • Seven Bro7thers Brewery – a family-run firm that has joined forces with Kellogg’s to create a range of beers using discarded cereal grains including Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies
  • Barnana – a sustainable snack company that works with Central and South American farmers to turn unwanted bananas and plantains into chips, bites and bars
  • Scraps Frozen Foods – a food manufacturer that turns imperfect and ugly produce which would usually be scrapped into frozen pizza 

Given the importance of eco-friendliness and environmental measures to consumers, brands can’t afford to ignore the anti-food-waste movement. And clear, helpful labelling is a simple but effective way to help turn the tide.

How can better product labelling help to reduce food waste? 

Educating consumers on the difference between use by and best before dates is an important contributor to cutting food waste – but it’s critical they understand the health and safety reasoning.

For example, fresh products are given use by dates because it can be dangerous to consume them after a certain point, and that point may not be immediately obvious. Items may have gone off before they start to look or smell bad. 

Use by dates are essential for food safety regulations, to help consumers understand that their senses alone aren’t always good enough to judge whether something is safe to eat. 

In contrast, best before dates are given to goods where quality may degrade after a certain point, but there is no health hazard to consuming it after this time. Yet some food brands are creating confusion by putting use by labels on products that aren’t highly perishable, because they worry that eating food past its best taste will reflect badly on their brand. 

To educate consumers on the truth behind best before dates, food waste charity WRAP produced its own guidance on when food is safe to eat after its best before date. It suggests that bread can be eaten 1-2 days after its best before date, and pitta bread can last up to a month or more. 

It’s time that companies mislabelling products realise that excess food waste is also bad PR – following in the footsteps of brands like Danone, which recently replaced expiration dates on yoghurts with best before instructions

Even brands already using best before dates appropriately can improve their practices. Foods that will keep for 3-18 months only require the month and year on their label, but some companies unnecessarily include a sell-by date. And products that will keep for more than 18 months only need the sell-by year on them, but this format is hardly ever seen. 

Do food products even need best before labels? 

While clearer instructions will help shoppers to make sensible decisions, brands have the option of taking it one step further. While use by dates are required to meet safety standards, food and beverage companies can remove best before dates altogether from some products. 

For example, several major supermarket chains have started selling undated fresh fruit and vegetables leaving consumers to use their own common sense as to whether something is suitable for consumption. This lengthens the shelf life, as retailers don’t have to dispose of products arbitrarily, simply because the label says they’re out of date. 

Reassessing the value of use by and best before dates could even cut down on food-related crime. In October 2020, a group of employees from two distributors in Kathmandu, Nepal were arrested for changing the expiration date on imported products, including Oreos and Pringles. 

Trust is incredibly important to building long-term relationships; even if a brand has no knowledge of fraud until the culprits have been caught, consumer confidence is still impacted by the incident. 

Labels are a powerful way to build consumer trust 

CPG companies have a legal obligation to ensure products meet health and safety regulations and are compliant in every market, as well as helping people consume food safely. Yet, at the same time, consumers are currently relying on labels that aren’t always relevant or easy to understand, which is distancing them from basic food hygiene practices. 

With the help of clearer packaging, food and beverage brands can support consumers in feeling confident with their choices, sticking to use by dates but using their own judgement for best before labels. And they can extend the shelf life of many products by changing their coding to ‘best before end’ and not including days, months, or any form of sell by date, on the label where it isn’t required. 

This may result in certain products being bought slightly less often. But sharing trustworthy information is a powerful tool for relationship building – that could ultimately increase customer lifetime value. 

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