Sell-by “muddle” proves date labels need clarity

By Anne Bruce

- Last updated on GMT

Sign of confusion?
Sign of confusion?
Food trade bodies have slammed the “muddled” publication of new government guidance on food date labelling, and called for more clarity on date labels.

The new date labelling guidance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was issued today (September 15), a year after it was first expected.

The guidance was created in a bid to cut down on food waste, with £12bn of edible food thrown away every year, according to estimates by the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme.

But the publication was seized on in a flurry of media stories which claimed that sell-by dates had been banned.

The new guidance from DEFRA, suggests any sell-by or display-until dates, which are used purely for stock control reasons, should be made ‘less visible to consumers’.

The guidance from DEFRA, developed working with the food industry, also reiterates existing European legislation which states that food that could become dangerous to eat - including soft cheese, ready meals and smoked fish - requires a use-by date.

Foods that may lose quality but are still safe to eat – such as biscuits, jams, pickles, crisps and tinned foods - require a best-before date.

Chilled Food Association​ (CFA) director Kaarin Goodburn​ told that “nothing had changed” with the new guidance.

Labelling was controlled by European legislation and ‘no-one uses sell-by dates anyway’, with display until dates used by only two retailers, Goodburn said.

CFA wanted government to address poor consumer understanding of use by and best before dates, she said.


Clare Cheney, director general of the Provision Trade Federation said the “muddled” media coverage of the story showed that the public and the press needed educating on what packaging dates meant.

Cheney suggested that the government should focus on educating consumers on what date labels meant if it wanted to cut waste, in a “drip feeding process, similar to its five-a-day campaign.”

Manufacturers could help as currently use-by was being chosen too readily as a default option rather than best-before.

She said: “Most food will become unpleasant to eat long before it becomes unsafe. Milk for example may never be dangerous even when it has become unpalatable. We need clearer guidance on what timescales should apply to use-by dates.”

Business group the Local Better Regulation Office agreed. Food producers had a highly risk averse approach in food labelling, it said.

This resulted in large numbers of products with use by dates which posed little or no microbiological safety risk, it added.

The business group’s recommendations were that use by dates are only used and set where food, was likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health.

It said that the government and the food industry should jointly develop product specific guidance on the application of durability dates to food.

Enforcement authorities should prosecute only where genuine safety risks exist from products being sold past their use by date and ensure their officers are adequately trained to assess those risks, it said.

Food and Drink Federation director of food safety and science Barbara Gallani said: “As research from WRAP suggests, shoppers are still confused by the difference between use by and best before, meaning that there is a significant challenge around consumer understanding.”

Educating consumers

British Retail Consortium food director, Andrew Opie, said: “If the government really wants to make a difference to reducing food waste it should be educating consumers about the two basic terms – use-by and best-before.”

In an online survey by Which? of 1,009 members of the GB population, carried out in June 2011, nearly 4 in 10 (37%) said they had stopped adhering to some use by dates, instead using other means of checking whether food has gone off – such as visual checks.

Today’s revised date labelling guidance was initiated by the Food Standards Agency before responsibilities for labelling were moved to DEFRA last year.

Related topics: Regulation, Food Safety, Packaging

Related news

Show more

Follow us

Featured Events

View more


View more