Food brands’ responsibility in clearer labelling

15th October, 2021

Today, UK households produce 6.6 million tonnes of food waste every year, but nearly three quarters of it is still edible1. Although not solely responsible for this happening, confusing labelling on packaging is certainly a contributing factor to food waste – in fact, in the UK alone, 180,000 tonnes of food is wasted each year because of misunderstandings around date labels2. So, where is the confusion coming from? And can more be done by food manufacturers to ensure that consumers are being educated on food expiration dates and on disposing food in a responsible way? Food manufacturers have an incredible opportunity to help consumers make more sustainable choices with simple, easy to implement labelling tweaks, which can play a critical part in driving down large-scale food waste and with improving brand reputation among increasingly conscious consumers.

Confusing labels

“Use By”, “Best Before” and “Sell By” are all terms that are familiar to homeowners in the UK, however, due to the confusion of what each mean, it leads to a contribution of 180,000 tonnes of food waste annually in the UK. That’s the equivalent of around 360,000,000 packets of grapes* being wasted every year. The confusion is a result of unstandardised labelling across food packaging, meaning consumers will often mistake one label for the other despite them meaning different things. For example, “Sell By” is a label used for staff in shops to know how long products have been sitting on shelves, and is not actually required by law to be labelled on food packaging. Although this label only concerns shop staff members, it is still exposed to consumers who could misinterpret it as expired and unsafe to eat. Too Good To Go, which connects consumers with businesses who are about to throw food away at the end of the day, state that products are carrying Use By labels, when the product type would be better suited to a Best Before3. This type of mislabelling misinforms consumers on the safety of their food and results in more food waste.

The impact of food waste

A proportion of wasted food will end up in a landfill site, where it rots and releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas4. Not only does food waste end up at landfills, the production, transport and storing of food equates to a large amount of energy used and becomes unnecessary once the food has been disposed of. Something else to consider with food waste is the potential use for it rather than it being disposed of. Research carried out in 2020 showed that, in part because of the pandemic, 1.5 million people had recently spent at least one day without food in the UK5. Although it is not as simple as giving potentially wasted food to the less fortunate, more can be done to ensure consumers consider taking different actions with their food if it is still edible albeit potentially of less quality if it is past it's Best Before date. Although confusion in labelling is not the sole contributor towards these impacts, it is still something that food manufacturers should consider for when labelling their products in the future.

What actions can be taken?

Too Good To Go are campaigning for brands to change their approach to labelling, to better inform consumers on what precautions they should take before disposing of food. These are as follows:

  1. Too Good To Go's 'Look, Smell, Taste, Don't Waste' label to packaging – this type of label on products will prompt consumers to use their senses before throwing food away. This in particular would be good for products with Best Before labels, as food past the date stated is still edible despite the quality potentially not being as good as it was.
  2. Change 'use by' labels to 'best before' on products with flexible consumption dates – assuming members of the public before more aware of what Best Before means, this will ensure that consumers are informed correctly that food products are still ok to eat after a certain date, and are not seen as inedible.
  3. Remove best before labels on products that don't require them – Too Good To Go state that food will unnecessarily display this label on their packaging despite being perfectly safe to eat for a long time after being produced, leading to disposal from misinformed consumers.
  4. Commit to fighting food waste together – Once food manufacturers have done what they can do to help consumers understand what food labels mean and the necessary steps they can take to help reduce the amount of food they waste, Too Good To Go would like to continue their partnership with food manufacturers. As consumers continuously purchase foods from their favourite brands, it gives manufacturers the opportunity to educate consumers even further, benefiting the environment with further food waste reduction and in turn grow consumer trust as members of the public become more aware of climate change the impact that food waste has on it.

Which brands are helping with the fight against confusing labelling?

Nestlé, The Laughing Cow, Arla and many others have joined the initiative to change food labelling of their products, with Nestlé stating that they will be rolling out the new labelling on a progressive basis, across key products produced in the UK and Ireland, to support consumers in the war on waste6. You can see the other brands that have also joined here, where you can also see the reasons why they have joined and what steps they are taking to ensure consumers are well informed before they decide on disposing of food.

Can we help?

Clearmark Solutions are one of the UK's leading coding and labelling solution suppliers. We take a partnership approach, making sure we fully understand each of your projects as part of the initial consultation, and will continue to support you and your business throughout the relationship. Here at Clearmark, we believe it is up to all of us to do our best to minimise the footprint we leave behind. If you have any upcoming projects in particular with the goal of educating and encouraging consumers to make better choices with their food and you think we could help then we would like to hear about it. Please contact us by filling out this form, and we'll be in touch to better understand your project's requirements.

*Based on packets weighing 500g







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