New Food Labelling Schemes Aim to Cut Waste in the US and Europe

Authorities Seek to Increase Clarity and Reduce Food Waste

Food waste is one of the biggest sustainability challenges in the food industry. The US Authorities are seeking to demystify “use by” and “best before” dates.

For years, consumers have struggled to make sense of the dates printed on perishable foods. “Use by” “Sell by” “Best before” all have their own meanings and give different information. The fact is, however, that a large proportion of food and drink goes to waste because it is needlessly thrown away.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS) is aiming to address this problem by introducing a new regulation for food labels this year, in which brands will be required to use the term “Best if Used By.”

Needless waste

It is a situation we have all encountered from time to time – take a packet of ham out of the fridge to make a sandwich, only to see yesterday’s date on it. For many, that means it feeds nothing but the bin.

In 2013, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic co-authored a study, concluding that 90% of consumers do not even look beyond the date – they simply assume that the food has “expired” without considering whether they are looking at a “use by,” “sell by” or “best before” date.

The fact is that our packet of ham is almost certainly part of the $165 billion of food that is discarded needlessly every year.

Best if Used by

The introduction of “Best if Used by” labelling is expected to both reduce waste and save money. Jill Carte from DayMark Safety Systems, a food labelling company in the USA, remarked that the “best before” and “sell by” dates simply reflect the item’s freshness, and that it is still perfectly edible after the date has passed.

By demystifying dates in this way, Carte believes the average US family could save $1,000 every year.

Natural branding

Back in Europe, meanwhile, another labelling innovation is aimed at reducing waste from a different angle. ICA, a Swedish grocery chain, has teamed up with a Dutch fruit and vegetable suppler to pilot the use of laser-printed labels on avocados and sweet potatoes.

The project will run to the end of March, and will be a potential step toward reducing the number of sticky labels that are so ubiquitous on fruit and vegetables.

It might sound like a small step, but ICA Business Unit Manager Peter Hagg pointed out: “By using natural branding on all the organic avocados we would sell in one year, we will save 200 kilometres of plastic 30 centimetres wide.”

Natural branding uses a strong laser beam to reduce pigmentation on the fruit or vegetable skin, leaving an impression with the name, price look up code and country of origin. With the skin removed, the mark is invisible and there is no impact on product quality or shelf life.

Natural branding also creates less than 1% of the carbon emissions used in creating a like-for-like sticky label.

The pilot began to receive positive feedback from the outset, and ICA is already considering expanding it into other product lines. Hagg remarked “If consumers react positively, there is no limit.”