The governments of the Netherlands and Sweden have asked for an EU debate on ‘best before’ labels, citing the role they play in food wastage.

An estimated 89 million tonnes of edible food is discarded in the European Union each year, leading to large economic losses in the 28-country bloc.

The letter, which the Council of the European Union issued to the EU delegations on the part of the Netherlands and Sweden, calls for debate on how best to facilitate private sector efforts to reduce food waste and losses.

This includes creating an enabling environment, according to the letter, and the removal of barriers in a way that preserves food safety.

“There may be various legislative areas where measures can be taken, but let us first focus on the ‘Best Before’ date”, the letter says. “In many European countries date labelling is causing unnecessary food waste. Without overturning the system as such, the Netherlands and Sweden think that some changes and actions can be taken to reduce the amount of food waste caused by the labelling system.”

Many products which have a ‘best before’ date on the label, whose use is required by European legislation, are edible after that date, but are still thrown away out of safety concerns.

“Confusion among consumers about ‘best before’ dates must be removed,” says the letter, which was supported by the Austrian, Danish, German and Luxembourg delegations.

The letter asks the Commission to consider an extended list of products that have a long shelf-life and so may not require a ‘best before’ date on the label.

The delegations also ask for an examination of how to inform consumers about the role of durability dates and the role other legislation may play in food wastage.

EU ministers are set to discuss the legislation at an agriculture council on Monday (19 May).

Civil society has become incensed by the level of food that is wasted, when many people in the developing world suffer from undernourishment.

The European Commission has set up a working group to discuss food waste at EU level and is set to release legislative proposals in mid-June.