Households are throwing away perfectly good food worth as much as £900 million each year because supermarkets routinely put misleading labels on fruit, vegetables and dairy products, a Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed.
A major analysis of key lines of fresh produce in Britain's ten largest supermarket chains showed that nearly every retailer is failing to follow official guidelines on labelling published four years ago.
We found 'Best before' or 'Display until' labels on 53 of 70 popular uncut fruit and vegetables at Sainsbury's, Tesco, Co-op, Morrisons, Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland, Waitrose and M&S.
Households are throwing away perfectly good food worth as much as £900 million each year because supermarkets routinely put misleading labels on fruit, vegetables and dairy products, a Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed
However, the vast majority of uncut fresh fruit and vegetables – including potatoes, carrots, onions, apples, garlic and lemons – do not require any date label at all.
NO NEED TO FREEZE MEAT ON DAY YOU BUY
Millions of pounds' worth of uncooked meat – including chicken, bacon and sausages – could be saved from landfill if supermarkets followed alternative labelling guidelines.
According to WRAP, thousands of tons of uncooked meat are needlessly thrown away because of wrong freezing advice. More than one in three chicken products are wasted because supermarkets use a Freeze On Day Of Purchase label, which campaigners say causes confusion.
Customers throw away the food because they mistakenly believe that it is unsafe to eat if they do not freeze it on the precise day they bought it. In fact, as long as it is kept in the fridge, meat can be put in the freezer up until the 'Use by' date and then defrosted and cooked later. The guidelines urge supermarkets to use phrases such as 'Freeze by date shown'.
Our investigation found that Iceland offered no freezing advice on any of its sausages, chicken and bacon, while M&S advised customers to freeze its chicken 'on day of purchase' rather than by the date shown, as they should.
It stated: 'For uncut fresh produce, apply 'Best before' only where this is judged to be necessary/useful in order to help consumers eat – rather than waste – the product. For all other cases, do not apply a date code.'
An exception was made for 'short-life products where there is limited time for consumption at home' such as strawberries, where a date label could encourage families to eat food before it goes off.
Yet our study found only Tesco and Lidl had removed date labels from their key fruit and vegetable lines. Tesco still shows 'Best before' labels on carrots for around 12 weeks a year at the end of the UK growing season.
In the worst examples of poor practice, Iceland and Morrisons are still using old-fashioned 'Display until' dates on fresh potatoes, apples, carrots and lemons. These discredited labels are used by shops as guidance for staff on how long products should stay on shelves.
The UK's official food labelling guidelines – which were prepared and endorsed in 2017 by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Food Standards Agency regulator and the charity WRAP – recommended against using them 'to avoid confusing consumers'.
The guidelines stated: ' 'Use by' should only be applied for food safety reasons. Therefore fresh, uncut fruit and vegetables need to display only a 'Best before' date – if appropriate.'
Food retailers have also been advised since 2019 that milk can now show a 'Best before' label rather than a 'Use by' label, unless there is a food safety risk.
This advice, which also applies to yogurts and other dairy products, is vital because 'Best before' refers to the quality of food, meaning it is still safe to eat past its best.
By contrast, 'Use by' refers to the safety of food, indicating that it should never be eaten after that date. It is also illegal to sell or redistribute food after its 'Use by' date.
Yet The Mail on Sunday's analysis of supermarkets in Surrey, Hertfordshire, London and Essex found every store put 'Use by' on its own-brand yogurt and milk cartons.
According to food charity Feedback Global, households waste 85 million pints of milk – worth about £10 million – every year because they follow 'Use by' dates and needlessly pour milk down the sink when still safe to consume.
Research by the University of Chester has previously discovered that milk from four UK supermarkets – Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons – kept in a fridge at 4C remained safe to drink seven days after their 'Use by' dates.
The failure of Britain's biggest supermarkets to update their dairy labels stands in stark contrast to the action taken by several major firms behind branded milk and yogurt.
Danone, which makes Activia yogurts, Cravendale milk manufacturer Arla and consumer goods giant Nestlé have all switched to displaying 'Best before' dates.
Many of the branded manufacturers have also added 'Look, Smell, Taste, Don't Waste' labels encourage consumers to decide for themselves when milk has turned sour.
APPLES LAST TWO WEEKS LONGER IN THE FRIDGE
Half a million tons of food could be saved every year if retailers used labels that encouraged people to store food properly.
Food should be stored in fridges cooler than 5C. But according to studies, the average fridge temperature in the UK is 7C with some as high as 14C. Government guidelines urge supermarkets to print a 'little blue fridge' 5C logo on products to encourage customers to keep their food cool and fresh – but only one in seven relevant products carries the logo.
Two in three people are not aware that storing apples in the fridge at 4C can prolong life by up to two weeks, an MoS survey found.
Meanwhile, Government guidelines say supermarkets should use snowflake logos on the front and back of packaging to indicate it is suitable for freezing. More than half of food that can be frozen doesn't carry the label, and WRAP says using the label would save thousands of tons of bread, meat and milk every year. WRAP estimates that about 300,000 tons of food could also be saved if retailers included on-pack recipe ideas.
When Arla switched to 'Best before' dates in September 2019, its director of quality, Fran Ball, said: 'If changing the label gives people the confidence that their milk might still be OK for a few further days after the date on the bottle, we'll all play a part in reducing food waste.'
Last night, food waste campaigners called on supermarkets to launch an urgent review of their labelling on fresh produce to prevent millions of tons of food needlessly going in the bin each year.
Carina Millstone, executive director of Feedback Global, said: 'Supermarkets must own up to their part in creating food waste in their customers' homes, and do all they can to help customers do the right thing, with the right labels. If they don't, we're left to wonder whether selling more food to their customers than they can eat is more important to retailers than tackling the huge climate burden of food waste.
'It's vital that we all pull together to reduce food waste, as one of the simplest actions we can all take to reduce our carbon footprint. Date labels such as 'Best before' on fresh produce, or 'Use by' on milk, are unnecessary and are causing enormous damage.'
Analysis for The Mail on Sunday by WRAP found that households throw away 350,000 tons of food worth £900 million every year because of mislabelling. The charity said an increase in product life of just one day of all perishable food could prevent 200,000 tons of food waste – potentially saving £600 million a year. When the latest food date labelling guidance was first published in 2017, Defra and the FSA accused supermarkets of using dates that are too 'conservative'. A report by the European Commission in 2018 also accused supermarkets of failing to remove date labels 'for fear of undermining a product's association with freshness and quality'.
Retailers are thought to be reluctant to change dates over concern that customers might be made ill.
Elizabeth Andoh-Kesson, food policy adviser at British Retail Consortium, said: 'Supermarkets have a duty of care and legal responsibility to use suitable use-by dates on their products to prevent any harm to customers. The safety of customers remains the number one priority.'
Yet according to WRAP, 150,000 tons of fruit and veg every year go in the bin each year specifically because households mistakenly believe food can no longer be eaten beyond the 'Best before' date.
Our investigation found that on average, supermarket potatoes had only three days left before the 'Best before' date. One branch of Sainsbury's in London was selling 1.5kg of potatoes with just two days left on the 'Best before' date. A branch of Iceland in Addlestone, Surrey, selling 2kg of potatoes had a discredited 'Display until' label with five days remaining.
A Co-op in Hertfordshire was selling lemons with just two days left on the 'Best before' label. Aldi in Essex had a cabbage with three days left on its 'Best before' date.
All supermarkets said they were committed to reducing waste. Iceland said it was 'updating all yogurt and hard cheese to 'Best before' labels' and was 'in discussions' about milk labelling. It said 'Display until' was used 'in line with customer feedback'.
Morrisons said it puts 'enjoy for longer when kept in the fridge' alongside its 'Display until' labels. Sainsbury's and M&S said they constantly review labels in line with best practice.
Waitrose said it was 'trialling' the removal of many 'Best before' dates. And Co-op said it had implemented 90 per cent of WRAP's guidelines, with 'more changes to come'.