New EU food agency tool reopens date marking rift

The European Commission estimates that up to 10% of the 88 million tonnes of food waste generated annually in the EU is linked to date marking on food products. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has stepped into the long-standing issue of date marking on food by presenting a new tool to help business operators decide when to apply the ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date to their products.

The new tool is intended to cut food waste but it could act as a catalyst for a rethinking process of the date marking on food which has split member states in the past.

On the back of increased focus on reducing food waste in the EU, the tool aims to help food producers use the two main food date marking categories, ‘use by’ and ‘best before’, in the most appropriate and effective way.

Although seemingly similar, the ‘use by’ date on food is about safety, meaning foods should not be eaten after this date, regardless of appearance, whereas the ‘best before’ refers to quality, meaning food is still safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best.

Misunderstanding and misuse of date marking leads to a significant amount of food waste, as outlined in the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), in which food waste is a key theme.

The European Commission estimates that up to 10% of the 88 million tonnes of food waste generated annually in the EU is linked to date marking on products.

More focus needed on food waste in the creation of a circular economy

Ahead of a Finnish Council Presidency’s conference that aims to set the EU agenda for action on food waste towards 2030, a number of companies have made commitments to reduce their food waste, but a number of barriers still stand in their way.

F2F push

Within the framework of the F2F, the EU executive is expected to investigate the possible impact of marketing standards regarding the “use by/best before” date marking.

Before the launch of the strategy, the Dutch government proposed extending the list of products that do not need date marking as they do not present any health risk in order to tackle food waste.

In 2014, a first attempt was made by a coalition of member states led by the Netherlands and Sweden to provide exceptions in the indication of the expiry date for products that can be stored for longer periods.

Although supported by Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and Denmark, the stance that would have made the ‘best before’ reference disappear was sharply challenged by another group of countries led by Italy.

At the time, the Italian government argued that the solution for reducing food waste was not by discussing the label issue alone and that the quality of food products is as important as their safety.

In France, a coalition of food companies recently called for new measures to avoid confusion between use by and best before dates, pointing out that ‘best before’ should be used less, except in the case of very perishable food, and the ‘use by’ must be always indicated.

Globally, it is estimated that a third of the food produced on this planet is wasted, making it a significant environmental, as well as social and economic, issue.

EFSA’s tool

The EFSA tool is structured as a decision tree with a series of questions to be answered by food business operators to help them decide whether a ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date is required.

Questions range from whether date marking requirements for a food category are already regulated by legislation, whether a product undergoes any treatment to eliminate hazards, and whether it is handled again before packaging, its characteristics and storage conditions.

Experts also reviewed the factors that need to be considered by food business operators to set a shelf-life date.

This includes the period of time during which a foodstuff remains safe and/or of a suitable quality for consumption while the packaging is intact and it is stored as instructed.

“Clear and correct information on packaging and a better understanding and use of date marking on food by all actors can help reduce food waste in the EU while continuing to ensure food safety,” said Kostas Koutsoumanis, chair of EFSA’s Panel on Biological Hazards.

The panel is also set to publish another opinion on this topic in 2021, which will focus on the information given to consumers on storage conditions, time limits for consumption after opening and thawing practices.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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