Marks & Spencer axes best-before labels on fresh produce as UK consumers target food waste
20 Jul 2022 --- Marks & Spencer (M&S) is removing best-before dates from over 300 fruit and vegetable products, representing 85% of the UK retailer’s produce offering, to help reduce in-store and household food waste.
The selected products will include “commonly wasted” items such as apples, potatoes and broccoli. The dates will be replaced with a new code that M&S store colleagues will use to maintain freshness and quality.
The change, which was rolled out across all M&S UK stores this week, is designed to encourage customers to throw away less edible food at home by using their judgment.
“A best-before date is a quality guide and indicates until when the item remains at optimum condition. Food with a best-before date can still be good to eat for days, weeks, months or longer after that date,” Estelle Herszenhorn, strategic technical manager – Food and Drink at WRAP, tells PackagingInsights.
“Best-before dates are not a legal requirement on fresh, uncut fruit and vegetables, and this kind of produce can be good to eat long after the best-before date and lasts much longer when stored in the fridge at home.”
Research from WRAP shows that an estimated 6.6 million metric tons of food are thrown away by UK households a year.
As part of its Plan A sustainability roadmap, M&S has pledged to halve food waste by 2030, with 100% of edible surplus to be redistributed by 2025.
Families against food waste
M&S’ latest Family Matters Index revealed that reducing food waste is “hugely” important to families, with 72% of UK families taking steps to reduce household waste, with those in Northern Ireland the most determined (77%).
Over half (55%) of families say it’s important that the shops they buy from make it easier for them to make more environmentally sustainable choices.
Andrew Clappen, director of food technology at M&S, says: “We’re determined to tackle food waste – our teams and suppliers work hard to deliver fresh, delicious, responsibly sourced produce at great value and we need to do all we can to make sure none of it gets thrown away.”
“To do that, we need to be innovative and ambitious – removing best-before dates where safe to do so, trialing new ways to sell our products and galvanizing our customers to get creative with leftovers and embrace change.”
Innova Market Insights pegged “Food Waste Fighters” as its top packaging trend for 2022 amid growing climate change fears.
WRAP consumer research
Earlier this year, research and recommendations from WRAP had already signaled the end of unnecessary plastic packaging and best-before labels on a wide range of fresh uncut fruit and vegetables in the UK.
The global NGO’s evidence suggests that selling fresh produce loose and removing date labels could prevent 14 million shopping baskets worth of food from going to waste and 1,100 rubbish trucks of avoidable plastic simply by allowing people to buy what they need.
“WRAP research showed that, stored at 4°C, apples lasted 2.5 months after best-before date, broccoli two weeks after. Critically, WRAP’s consumer research also showed that, when there was no best-before date, it increased the length of time people said they would still eat fresh produce items,” stresses Herszenhorn.
Accordingly, the organization has called for the removal of more unnecessary and problematic single-use plastic items under the UK Plastics Pact, including wrapping on multi-packs of tinned food and sauce sachets in restaurants.
Understanding use-by labels
WRAP’s labeling best practice is developed with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – the two organizations responsible for food labeling regulations in the UK.
“Removing a best-before date on fruit and vegetables is legal and does not lead to any increased risk. In contrast, use-by labels are important, and people should never consume food past the use-by date unless it has been frozen on or before that date,” stresses Herszenhorn.
“Other items that have a best-before date applied, like bread and, increasingly, dairy items, cannot be sold without a date label at all, as they are not exempt in the same way that uncut fruit and vegetables are. The FSA advises washing fruit and vegetables before you eat them and WRAP concurs,” she adds.
Loose versus packaged produce
Meanwhile, an 18-month project conducted by WRAP, with input from the industry, to examine the link between food waste in the home and the use of plastic packaging has challenged accepted thinking that packaging helps preserve fresh produce.
The project showed that selling loose has “huge potential” to reduce food waste in people’s homes. The research also examined the influence of date labels and storage temperatures on food going to waste.
However, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) reaffirmed the valuable role of plastic in reducing food spoilage and associated carbon emissions in response to the WRAP UK study.
BPF backs the UK Plastic Pact’s overall objectives and stresses that the plastics industry only supports using plastic when it provides a functional benefit. However, as the study was solely focused on a small number of fresh food items and their lifespan within the home, BPF argued its conclusions were limited.
PackagingInsights also spoke with Helen Bird, strategic engagement manager at WRAP, in an exclusive video interview about these concerns and how further evidence on food waste can be accumulated.
By Natalie Schwertheim
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