Waitrose, M&S, Morrisons and Tesco to Ban Best Before Labels on 500 products. Will Asda, Aldi and Lidl Follow Suit?

Every year, 88 million tons of food goes to waste in the EU. To tackle the problem, supermarkets are removing best before dates on fresh produce and encouraging customers to use their senses while shopping – literally. ‘Do you think this milk is still ok?’ my colleagues ask one another on Tuesday morning, reverting to the good old, trusty smell test on a past-dated carton before tucking into their morning cuppa. We’ve all been there – slicing off the brown part of the apple, breaking off the piece of a banana that’s a little too mushy for our tastes. We know that a partial imperfection on a piece of fruit or veg doesn’t mean that eating the rest will send us rushing to A&E.

So why, when we see an otherwise fresh-looking bag of spinach in the supermarket nearing its ‘best before’ date, do we reach to the back to find one going off at the end of the week? We all know we’re not polishing off the bag by Friday, anyway. Best-before labels were first introduced to customers in the 70s, when concerns over food safety were mounting. These labels have since evolved into a legal requirement for food manufacturers in most parts of the world, and we’ve become conditionally co-dependent on them.

Today, one third of Brits say they adhere to best-before dates while shopping or rummaging through their refrigerator – as if these stamps seal an item’s destiny to commence decomposition at the stroke of midnight, Cinderella-style. Whether people are worried about food-borne illnesses (i.e.. Listeria) and digestive sensitivities (shoutout to the IBS crew) or simply playing it safe, many food critics say best-before dates have become a major driver of the global food waste crisis, which saw an excess of 900 million tons of food thrown out in 2021.

Critics further suspect that best-before labels were made up by retailers to urge consumers to throw out ‘old’ goods and buy more, sooner. Looking at a vegetable and gauging whether something’s off only takes a few seconds, and if it’s too far gone, well, you’ll definitely smell it. So why do one third of shoppers not trust themselves to do either? Now we’re going to have to start trusting out senses – which makes a lot of sense, pun intended.

For those who refer to best-before dates as an extension of their ethical code of practices, there’s key information about what these labels signify that might pacify your anxieties. Best before dates are exactly that. They simply stand to indicate at which point an item will continue to retain its optimal freshness, not when it will cease to be nutritionally safe to eat, which is what ‘use by’ labels are for.


Where’s the Change?

A few supermarkets have already taken the plunge – most recently Asda and Sainsbury’s. The changes will happen from September 2022, and apply to almost 500 fresh products in total, specifically including lots of their own packaged fruits and vegetables.

Waitrose has announced it will ditch best-before dates on 500 of its fresh products, effective from September. The retailer’s sustainability and ethics director expressed her hope that, by leaving the judgement of freshness to the customer, perfectly fine produce like apples and potatoes won’t be wasted as frequently. Shoppers are being encouraged to throw soft apples into a crumble and roast floppy carrots as Waitrose becomes the latest supermarket to ditch “best before” labels on a range of fresh produce.

From September the labels will be removed on almost 500 products, including lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, grapes, apples, tomatoes and potatoes. Waitrose said the move – which follows a similar announcement from Marks & Spencer earlier this month – would help to tackle food waste by inviting consumers to “use their own judgement” to decide whether food is fresh enough to eat.

Wrinkly plums or shrivelled grapes are not necessarily destined for the bin, experts say, with shoppers encouraged to get creative by pickling, freezing, roasting or boiling fruit and vegetables that are on the turn. “’Best before’ dates on fruit and veg are unnecessary and create food waste because they get in the way of people using their judgement when food is still good to eat,” said Catherine David, from anti-waste charity WRAP, which has been lobbying supermarkets to make the change.

Produce can be rescued even if it looks past its best, experts stress. Wilted vegetables such as carrots, celery, lettuce and spring onions can be revived by dunking them in a bowl of ice cold water, for example, while shrivelled fruit can taste just as good as fresh when thrown in a blender to make a smoothie. “Use by” dates will still feature on produce to indicate when a product might be unsafe to eat, Waitrose said. As a general rule of thumb, produce that has gone wet, slimy, mouldy or smelly should be thrown out.

Marks and Spencer’s, the first to introduce best-before dates to Brits in the 70s, has also announced best-before label removals on over 300 products, with Tesco and Co-op following suit, removing dated labels on 100 fresh products in-store. The decision, first reported by the Mail on Sunday, is the latest step in the slow death of the best before date, an innovation that was meant to help consumers, but which has instead been blamed for creating mountains of waste from perfectly edible food. “Best before” labels differ from “use by” dates, with the former often merely a measure of aesthetics, while the latter tends to indicate a safety risk if ignored.

Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, had already announced the end of best before dates on its own-brand fruit and vegetables as far back as 2018, while the German supermarket Lidl also says it does not include best before information, to reduce food waste. Morrisons in January ditched use by dates, instead asking customers to deploy the time-honoured “sniff test” to check whether cow’s milk is still drinkable.

Potatoes are the most wasted food in the UK, followed by bread and milk, according to Wrap, a food waste charity. M&S will also offer customers the option to buy three bananas at a time – rather than a bunch – to cut waste of another popular item – although these will be provided in packaged “25p banana bags”. M&S is aiming to halve food waste from its products by 2030 compared with 2018, and it wants to redistribute 100% of edible surplus food by 2025. Achieving those targets would put it in line with the UK’s commitment to meet the United Nations goal of halving food waste by 2030 compared with 2007 – as well as helping consumers save hundreds of millions of pounds every year on feeding the bin.

Notably, this won’t affect ‘use by’ dates – which are put there for safety reasons. Nor will it affect all products – as plenty of non-fresh products will arrive in store with a ‘best before’ already included by the manufacturer, rather than being added by the supermarket. Interestingly, Morrisons announced in January this year that its own brand milk products will go without a ‘use by’ date – opting instead for a ‘best before’ and suggesting customers use the ‘sniff test’.

Customer Reactions

Shoppers have been quick to react to the decision, with many angry about it. On Facebook, Margaret Ngsc said: “When supermarkets make such decisions, have they ever thought about people suffering from temp or perm loss of smell sense because of the stupid covid 19? I didn’t feel the imminence until i became a victim. I was totally helpless when I tried to smell a bottle of milk the other day….”

Tracey Garton said: “I’m not fussed about bb4 dates after I’ve bought stuff as I use common sense on whether or not it’s gone off….BUT I am bothered about buying expensive stuff that’s not fresh. Put a picked/processed/packed date on them then at least I can choose the freshest products to buy.”

Gail Hudson wote: “People often only have the time to shop one day a week, whether it’s visiting a store or online shopping. I would like to think my groceries are fresh and will last well into the coming week. These shops will be passing on food that is well passed it best, for the customer to throw out, to save the shop the trouble and price of throwing it away themselves. It’s more about shop profits at customers expense.”

Karen Markham said: “I haven’t taken any notice of best before dates for years. Hopefully it’ll stop people wasting so much food.” Pauline Cory added: “Love this, never had dates on anything when I was growing up and in early adulthood, still here to tell the tale! If you bothered to read the article (which says it will be on fruit and veg) some of the comments on here would not ever needed to have been made – you are not going to die from eating out of date fruit and veg, which is pretty obvious when it’s not fit for consumption!!” Em Peel-Rice agreed: “Good, too many people get rid of perfectly safe food because of the dates, I’ve never personally taken notice, if the product smells, looks and tastes OK then I’ll eat/drink/use it. They didn’t have any of these dates until recent years, they didn’t even have proper fridges a hundred years ago.”

Nicole Leiner suggested: “About time. UK the only country where they put a date on fruit and veg. Use your eyes and nose and make up your own mind. It’s not rocket science!”

In the end, cutting down on food waste will not only ease increasing pressure on the agriculture industry, but it’ll also help slow climate change as a result of less methane in the atmosphere released by organic matter’s breakdown.

If the planet is the least of your worries (what are you even doing here?!) you might be swayed from your opposition to label removal by the reminder that it might just save us some of our hard-earned cash. And with the number of inflation-dominated headlines splashed across news pages right now, can you really argue with that?