Germany plans ‘smart’ packaging to cut food waste

Germans threw away €235 in food each in 2012. Perhaps they will be convinced to cut their waste from an economic standpoint, if not an environmental one. [jbloom/Flickr]

Germans throw away 82kg each in food waste every year, despite much of it still being edible. Minister of Food and Agriculture Christian Schmidt (CSU) wants things to change and to abolish the expiration date on packaging in favour of more scientific alternatives. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Tonnes of still-edible food end up in German bins every year. According to a study commissioned by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, German citizens threw away 82kg of food in 2012 or the equivalent of €235 in food per person. About half of the food discarded is fruit and vegetables, closely followed by pasta and bread.

Christian Schmidt wants to put the brakes on this waste as soon as possible and wants to get rid of the best before date (BBD) on packaging, with the declared aim of halving food waste by 2030.

The minister is convinced that products are fit for consumption long beyond what is often stated on the packaging and disagrees with the current consumer protection principle. “We throw away masses of food because producers have established too wide a safety margin,” Schmidt told German media.

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Many German consumers are unaware that for more than 30 years the BBD on packaging has not been the actual expiry date. The actual meaning of the date is how long the unopened and properly stored foodstuff will retain its specific taste, smell, colour, consistency and nutritional value. Therefore, products such as salt and sugar, which are quite durable, only have their manufacture date on their labels.

For perishable food products, the ministry wants to establish an expiration date that takes into account real consumer information for products like ham.

However, the Federal Association of German Food Traders (BVLH) rejects this idea, stating that the current information on packaging, such as storage advice, is an important tool that allows consumers to make informed purchases.

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Reforming expiry dates is only step one in Schmidt’s plan to cut waste. He has called for electronic chips to be installed in food packaging, such as yoghurt pots, which would show the consumer how the product has aged through the use of a colour-coded scale. Schmidt’s ministry has invested €10 million in research into the idea, with the aim of having something concrete in three years’ time.

The idea is that the electronic chip in the food packaging would analyse its contents and gradually change from green to red, allowing the consumer to decide for themselves whether the product is still edible or not.

Berlin cannot enforce such a radical move by itself. However, Schmidt is confident that his ministry will be in a position in a few months to propose something at an EU level. Germany, together with the Netherlands, has already launched a European initiative on how to make changes to expiration dates in the short-term and how to proceed with “smart” packaging in the long-term.

The two countries are aiming to go one step further than France and Italy, where supermarkets are already prevented by law from throwing away food. Instead, they must sell it at a cheaper price, donate it to the needy, process it into animal feed or compost it. Austria’s Agriculture Minister, Andrä Rupprechter, has stated her office’s aim of setting similar targets.

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