The EU Commission is publishing a study which estimates that up to 10% of the 88 million tons of food waste generated annually in the EU are linked to date marking.
The study was commissioned with a view to map how date marking is used in the market by food business operators and control authorities. The study found wide variation in date marking practices which, along with poor legibility of date marks (for 11% of products sampled), do not facilitate consumer understanding. Conclusions of the study stress that strengthened cooperation and innovation amongst actors in the food supply chain can play an important role in preventing food waste and that additional guidance by control authorities may be needed in certain areas, for instance to facilitate food redistribution past the “best before” date.
Date marking is specifically tackled by the Commission as part the Circular Economy Action Plan to prevent food waste generation in the EU. In order to discuss with all key players the report’s findings and their possible implications for food waste prevention, the Commission will create a dedicated sub-group on date marking under the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste. Objectives will be to discuss possible options (legislative and non-legislative) and help guide coordinated action by all actors concerned: public authorities in EU Member States, food business operators, consumer – and other NGOs.
The Commission’s study is available here
In general, is interesting to note that the market research found variation in date marking practices within product types and among Member States. Of the ten product types sampled for this study, only sauce, sliced bread, and fresh juice had predominantly the same type of date mark in all eight Member States surveyed. (Along with hard cheese, these were the product types for which more than 80% of products sampled displayed a “best before” date mark.)
The other product types tend to display a “use by” date mark in some Member States but a “best before” date mark in others. Examples were even found of otherwise identical products manufactured by international brands displaying a “use by” date in one Member State and a “best before” date in another. In general, “use by” date marks were less commonly found on products purchased in Sweden and Germany than on the same products purchased in other Member States.
The stakeholder interviews provided insights into the causes of the differences among FBOs and among Member States in what type of date mark is regarded as appropriate for which type of product and why:
- a product type carrying “use by” in some markets will carry a “best before” date mark in others
- “use by” date marks are being used on some products where there is no apparent food safety reason for doing so and thus where a ‘”best before” date would be more appropriate; and
- there are examples of products listed in Annex X of the FIC Regulation (Reg. EU n. 1169/2011) having a date mark where none is required.
Some producers are taking account of factors beyond the product characteristics when determining how to apply the terms of the FIC Regulation. These include their perceptions of consumer knowledge of date labels. Some producers apply “use by” date marks to products (for which a “best before” date mark would be more appropriate) as a precautionary measure given the uncertainties about consumer
handling food safely.
This is also linked to:
- different perceptions as to which foods are ‘highly perishable’ in each market;
- retailer preferences for date marking practices, including examples of:
- a preference for using “use by” dates for particular categories of product, such as all chilled products or all fresh produce; and
- a preference to use “use by” dates to indicate freshness to the consumer
Retailers tend to favour a consistent approach to date marking for each product type in each national market but are used to accommodating variation in labeling practice between national markets. The determination of the preferred type of label in each
country is influenced by factors that include perceived expectations of consumers and, in some cases, guidance provided by a trade association or the relevant National Competent Authorities (NCAs).
The market survey found also that:
- A wide range of storage advice was available for the sampled products, particularly in relation to the appropriate storage temperature for chilled products (which was expressed either as a maximum temperature or a temperature range).
- The storage temperatures quoted on products tended to be lower than the standard maximum retail temperatures mentioned by interviewees as the norm for the relevant market. The storage advice in the same product group was often found to vary or even be contradictory across different markets, potentially leading to consumer confusion.
- There was variation across the product types in the prevalence of advice on open life. Such advice was provided on the majority of fresh juice and pre-prepared chilled pasta products. It was least commonly found on yoghurt, tomato sauce, hard cheese and sliced bread.
Interviewees acknowledged the lack of consistency in storage advice and open life advice. There was no consensus on what constituted good quality, non-mandatory advice on open life for consumers.
The discussions suggested that FBOs’ concern to avoid customer complaints and adjustments for factors such as consumer knowledge, and uncertainty about the conditions in which the product might be stored, led them to use formulations such as ‘consume immediately’ as a precautionary measure.