Dates on the food we buy guide us. But many people are confused about what 'use by' and 'best before' mean. One indicates the last day a product is safe to eat. The other tells us that the food can be consumed, but it's past its best.
Less than half of today's consumers understand the difference between 'use by' and 'best before'. This has very tangible consequences: 10% of Europe’s 88 million tonnes of annual food waste is due to a lack of understanding of date marking.
How major retailers and consumer organisations deal with date marking makes all the difference.
For example, Test Achats, the oldest consumer association in Belgium, points out that sometimes both 'best before' and 'use by' are used on the same kind of products. This can be misleading.
Julie Frère, the Public Affairs and Media Relations Officer of Test Achats, says that "as a consumer, when you see these two products that look similar and you see that they use different date markers, it obviously adds confusion. You wonder why one is considered highly perishable and not the other. In reality, this is a second issue that adds to the confusion".
How date marking is managed by food business operators along the supply chain can also have an impact on food waste.
Products often past their 'best before' date are sold in supermarkets and other outlets at a reduced price. Some are also given to charities or even used to produce energy through natural processes.
As part of the Farm to Fork Strategy, the European Commission is looking into new date marking rules to resolve problems of misunderstanding. It has launched an impact study and requested scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority.
Consumer organisations, like the Belgian 'Test Achats', are eager to join the initiative.
Frère tells us that they're happy that the European Commission is taking up the issue. The consumer organisation's goal is "to follow as closely as possible any proposals that will be put on the table to be sure that they meet consumer expectations in terms of clarity and understanding".
In France, there's an interesting initiative that's helping to reduce food waste. 'Too Good To Go' can be downloaded as an app on your phone and it connects consumers with restaurants and shops where they can buy unsold food for less.
The company has also launched a campaign with several major brands. Its aim is to encourage people to use their senses when considering food and the 'best before date'.
Luisa Ravoyard is a Press Officer for Too Good To Go France. She tells us that the company has worked with producers on labels "to create icons that incite consumers to trust their senses". The icons represent the sense of sight, smell and taste and they are on products with a 'best before date'.
She believes that it makes "the date more understandable and helps consumers to trust their senses before throwing away a product that is past its 'best before date'".
Ensuring better labelling and helping consumers make sustainable food choices are part of the Farm to Fork Strategy action plan.
The European Commission aims to present a new set of rules on date marking by the end of 2022.