Battling the ‘best before’: How are UK brands combatting food waste?

Sep 9, 2022 |4 min read

'Use by' or 'best before' - the labelling terms that have so often caused confusion for consumers with their supermarket purchases and when to throw produce away. Often confused as a food safety label (but actually a guideline on optimum freshness), many reject edible, but date-expired food, resulting in consumable produce ending up in the bin. A campaign in the UK to cut down on household food waste is now driving momentum amongst supermarkets to remove these labels from their packaging.


Scrapping guidelines in favour of personal judgement

Last month, M&S announced that ‘best before’ dates will be removed from over 300 fruit and vegetable products. As part of the brand’s wider pledge to halve food waste by 2030, these labels are to be replaced with a new code that staff can scan to check freshness and maintain quality control.. This has now been echoed by Waitrose, who have announced a similar move with the same label to be erased on 500 fresh products from September.

Other British supermarkets have also been shifting away from these types of labels on their product lines. Tesco have been part of this movement since 2018, whilst Morrisons have also made a step to remove ‘Use by’ dates on most of its milk, encouraging customers to instead use the ‘sniff test’ before throwing away. These changes are putting the power in the hand of consumers to use their own judgement on whether or not their food can be consumed safely, in the hope to decrease the amount of food being wasted.

Whilst ‘Best before’ dates are easier to remove, with a focus on product aesthetics, there is some concern around the safety of removing ‘Use by’, and the risk this might pose to consumer health if they guess wrong. Equally, for those who do not feel confident in their judgement, some produce may be thrown out prematurely, reversing the intended impact. This highlights the need for more guidance and education on product shelf life when implementing this trend.


Getting creative with leftovers

The Love Food Hate Waste campaign reports that UK households waste 6.5 million tonnes of food every year, of which 4.5 million tonnes is edible. According to WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), potatoes, bread and milk are the items that are most likely to end up in the bin.

However, food waste is often unintentional - plans change, people treat themselves to a takeaway, or simply forget what is at the back of the fridge. But the demands of cost of living are leading to behaviour shifts and inventive uses of leftover food.

Beyond lockdown trends such as banana bread, we are seeing more ideas and creativity when it comes to repurposing food. Whether that’s home food preservation, effective meal planning tips, leftover recipe inspiration, or food management behaviour advice, it can easily be found from a quick search online.

Creativity with surplus food is also on the rise for retailers, with supermarkets opting for more inventive means of ‘reuse’. M&S has worked with Adnam’s Brewery to develop three beers made from the crusted end of loaves. This type of initiative offers a double whammy win for brands, building ethical credentials and impact, alongside providing a new product that can then be sold back to consumers. Responsible shopping practices combined with these larger scale brand commitments highlight the need for a joint effort in beating the food waste epidemic.


Meal subscription services

The recipe box industry has seen huge growth in recent years. Already a competitive market, HelloFresh, Gousto and Simply Cook are some of the key players in this scene. Meals are delivered to your door complete with instructions and pre-measured ingredients. Whilst ease and convenience sit as the core USPs, these deliveries also combatting food waste by providing the exact amount food required for your portions, creating zero-waste cooking options.

For those who like more freedom with their recipes, companies such as Oddbox offer ‘wonky’ fruit and veg boxes to bring surplus produce to your home that would otherwise get chucked in the bin for imperfections. Whilst there is an argument that these types of frequent postal deliveries create a high carbon footprint, the reduction in unused produce and prevention of over-purchasing is having a big environmental impact in the context of waste.


Partnerships to give back to the community

Other brands are also collaborating to tackle this wider issue.  Co-op and Microsoft have partnered to launch a new digital platform called Caboodle, which aims to prevent tonnes of edible food from being thrown away. The service allows supermarkets, restaurants and cafes to redistribute surplus food with the help of volunteers. Charities, community groups and youth clubs can then be notified when food is ready to share in their local area through a digital alert system via the app.

Gousto, now officially a B Corp, has also been collaborating with DPD to facilitate the re-routing of any failed box deliveries to the surplus food distribution charity, FareShare. The food can then be donated to support vulnerable people via foodbanks across the country, further combatting food waste across the business. These types of partnerships are developing meaningful and impactful relationships that gives back to those in need, whilst also reducing the amount of food that goes to landfill.


What next?

The cost of living crisis combined with the desires to make environmentally-friendly and sustainable choices generates a unique set of challenges for consumers in their everyday lives. This leads to a range of difficult decisions – living green, living affordably, living a convenient lifestyle. Is it possible to have it all?

Brands have an opportunity to make greener choices easier and more accessible, providing the ‘feel good’ factor by helping consumers to make effortless changes when it comes to environmental responsibility. Whilst awareness builds around consumer brands’ impact on the planet, a large proportion of food waste comes from the home, creating a need for a joint effort for combatting food waste. There is a lot more to be done, but these initiatives show brands are willing to positively engage with the issue and drive change.