Food waste is a problem. Is getting rid of “use-bys” and “best befores” a solution?

The UK supermarket chain Waitrose became the latest in the country to scrap ‘best before’ dates on hundreds of products, following similar announcements by major retailers including Tesco and Marks and Spencer. 

In January, Morrisons, another major UK grocery chain, scrapped ‘use-by dates’ on milk in favour of a best before date and the ‘sniff test’.

The new labelling customs are intended to combat the problem of food waste. According to UK recycling charity the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), around 9.5 million tonnes of food was wasted in 2018, and milk is the third most wasted food and drink product in the UK, despite research showing it can be used days after the ‘use-by’ date printed on the label.

Speaking on the BBC, Marija Rompani, director of sustainability and ethics at the John Lewis Partnership, which owns Waitrose, said: “By removing best before dates from our products, we want our customers to use their own judgement to decide whether a product is good to eat or not, which in turn, will increase its chances of being eaten and not becoming waste.”

No such moves have been touted in Australia, where 7.6 million tonnes of food are wasted each year — equivalent, says the Australian Government, of about 312 kilograms per person.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that consumer confusion around product labelling may be responsible for around 20% of home food waste, costing an estimated US$161 billion per year.

Amid a major outbreak of the dangerous food poisoning bug Listeria in the US, Dr Jill Roberts, a professor of public health at the University of Florida, has written in The Conversation that food expiration dates — at least in the US — don’t always have solid science behind them.

Food waste isn’t just a problem in the face of a growing global food shortage: wasted food produces eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. To put it another way, if all the food wasted globally was a country, it would be the third highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, behind the US and China.

The Australian government has set itself the goal of halving food waste by 2030, involving a suite of cross-sector projects, but food codes here are strict. So, is scrapping these dates a good idea? And could it ever happen?

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