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Legislation that is past its 'use-by' date

By Clare Cheney , 01-Jun-2011
Last updated on 13-Jun-2011 at 17:34 GMT

Assuming the European Commission, Parliament and Council can agree on some outstanding issues, the EC Food Information Regulation will be adopted shortly.

One issue to be dissatisfied with is the decision to make it an offence to sell foods after their 'use-by' dates. This has long been the case in the UK and its repeal would have provided an excellent quick-hit under our government's pledge to cut red-tape. Instead, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs proposed that the rest of Europe shared this gold-plating. The rest of Europe agreed, without questioning whether it would improve safety.

In the UK, too many foods have 'use-by' dates where 'best-before' is more appropriate. UK law says 'use-by' dates should be applied to foods that, after that date, will quickly become unsafe from a microbiological point of view.

In practice, there are very few foods that might become unsafe before they have deteriorated in eating quality. Thus, a 'best-before' date is more appropriate in such cases because it marks the point beyond which the supplier would not want its product to be eaten because it would not be at its best not because it was unsafe.

Is it right, therefore, for it to be deemed a criminal offence for a retailer to accidentally leave on the shelf a product that, although only a day beyond a 'use-by' date on the label, would by no means present a risk to health if consumed? If the supplier had decided that a 'best before' date was more appropriate for the same product, it would not be an offence to sell it after the date.

Some suppliers that insist on 'use-by' dates on their products claim that this safeguard is necessary because consumers might not keep foods at the right temperature. This is flawed logic. People who don't use correct storage temperatures are least likely to appreciate the practical difference between 'use-by' and 'best before' dates in any case. The former is associated with safety and the latter with quality.

If there had only been one form of durability date label, this unsatisfactory state of affairs wouldn't have arisen. Now that we're saddled with it, the extension of the offence to the rest of Europe should be condemned as militating against consumer interests because it adds unnecessary cost to food distribution and increases the potential for waste.

One might question why this case wasn't made more strongly years ago. But the extent of usage could not have been predicted. It was understood in theory that few foods would have needed 'use-by' dates, but practice has not reflected this. It is regrettable that the European Parliament, Council and Commission seem incapable of improving EU legislation but can only add more. And our Government supports it.

Clare Cheney is director general of the Provision Trade Federation

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