Should ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates be reimagined to reduce waste?

Photo: Marks & Spencer
Jul 29, 2022

Marks & Spencer is taking “best before” dates off more than 300 fruit and vegetable items in an effort to curb food waste.

The affected items cover 85 percent of M&S’s produce offerings, including commonly wasted items such as apples, potatoes and broccoli. M&S will replace the dates with a code to enable store associates to ensure freshness and quality are maintained.

M&S has committed to halving its own food waste by 2030, but is also helping shoppers along the way. M&S’s latest Family Matters Index found that 72 percent of UK families are taking steps to reduce household waste.

“Our teams and suppliers work hard to deliver fresh, delicious, responsibly sourced produce at great value and we need to do all we can to make sure none of it gets thrown away,” said Andrew Clappen, director of food technology, in a statement. “To do that, we need to be innovative and ambitious — removing best before dates where safe to do so, trialing new ways to sell our products and galvanizing our customers to get creative with leftovers and embrace change.”

Seventy percent of the UK’s food waste is thrown away in homes, according to the Waste & Resources Action Program (Wrap). Catherine David, director of collaboration and change at the charity, said, “We urge more supermarkets to get ahead on food waste by axing date labels from fresh produce, allowing people to use their own judgment.”

“Best before” refers to when the product should be consumed to get the best quality, taste and texture. “Use by” labels estimate the dates until which perishable food can be cooked and consumed safely.

Kroger and Walmart are among U.S. chains that have committed to stop sending their unsold food to landfills, but consumer educational pushes to reduce food waste are more common in the U.K.

Tesco removed “best before” dates for much of its produce in 2018. In January of this year, Morrisons replaced “use by” with “best before” dates on most of its milk while encouraging consumers to use a “sniff test” to check quality. In April, Co-op Food replaced “use by” with “best before” dates for its yogurt.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is it time for food manufacturers and grocers in the U.S. to rethink “best before” and “use by” dates to help reduce food waste? What alternatives would benefit consumers and the environment the most?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"This is insane. Better we should avoid the topic of spoilage?"
"These food expiration dates have always confused shoppers. But doing away with these advisories would cause a shopper backlash."
"Expiration dates on products make sense if there is a chance of pathogenic spoilage or a loss of efficacy."

Join the Discussion!

14 Comments on "Should ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates be reimagined to reduce waste?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Neil Saunders

This is good in some ways, but the consumer will not be able to easily assess the shelf-life of the product and how long they have left to consume once they get home. As for “use by” dates, these are a legal requirement in the UK and food should not be eaten past this date because it could be unsafe. It is obviously applied to perishable items like fish and meat.

Jeff Weidauer

Expiration dates on products make sense if there is a chance of pathogenic spoilage or a loss of efficacy. Beyond that, “use by” dates serve little useful purpose for the consumer.

Dave Bruno

I absolutely love this idea. Letting consumers decide when fresh produce is ready to be discarded is a great first step to reducing the staggering 70% of UK food waste that happens at home. As Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, “Buying fruit’s a gamble. I know that going in.”

Paula Rosenblum

This is insane. Better we should avoid the topic of spoilage?

It strikes me as potentially bad for everyone concerned — a consumer who buys and eats out of date cole slaw, the customer service reps who have to take calls about “off tasting” food.

I think it’s a terrible idea.

Doug Garnett

Full agreement. Were they looking at canned goods some of the other places where manufacturers sometimes appear to use “best buy” dates to drive turnover, then the discussion would be different.

But fresh goods? Nothing is more concerning for a customer than buying grapes and discovering moldy ones in the middle, taste which is off, or other indications they sat in the refrigerator too long.

It’s a terrible idea. A far better idea would be to use less non-recyclable packaging.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I get the problem with “Best Before” dates — there’s some subjectivity to it. I find “Use By” dates helpful though, more for at home then buying in store. I don’t treat it as a hard and fast rule — I’ll use the sniff test — but if something hits its use-by date, I’m taking a close look. It also signals that the end is near and to use it up in a recipe soon. Educate people, then give them the tool that will help them make the most use of the product.

Brian Cluster

All of the various “use by,” “sell by,” and “best if used by” messaging should be evaluated since these are not necessarily related to absolute safety dates — unlike the standard “expiration date.” The variety and differences of these messages across categories are quite confusing to consumers. According to the USDA over 30% of the food supply is lost or wasted at retail and consumer levels. If some of that waste can be reclaimed due to clearer messaging/merchandising it would be a win for the retailers and consumers.

Andrew Blatherwick

These initiatives are invaluable in reducing the massive amount of food that is sent to landfill and wasted when the produce is still perfectly acceptable to eat. Why do we underestimate consumers by assuming that they need a date on the packaging to be able to judge if it is edible or not? So many consumers religiously follow the date on the packaging without using their own judgment. The economy and the environment cannot afford to continue with the high levels of waste currently experienced around the world. Trust people to make their own judgments.

Ryan Mathews

“Use By” dates are consumer friendly and useful. “Best Buy” dates probably do lead to food waste … assuming anyone is reading them. And, that’s the problem. Go into your pantry or shelves right now and see how many items are past their “Best Buy” and/or “Use By” dates. It many kitchens that’s a scary exercise. So, if people aren’t paying attention to them now, will they even notice a difference in labeling? Frankly, I don’t know. If everyone bought fresh, this would be much less of a problem, since the product itself would “tell” you when it was no longer edible.

John Karolefski

These food expiration dates have always confused shoppers. But doing away with these advisories would cause a shopper backlash. Better to simplify the wording and roll out a widespread shopper education program.

Mel Kleiman
Mel Kleiman
President, Humetrics
4 months 6 days ago

Dates on meat and dairy products seem to be very realistic. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, sell-by dates should be all that is needed. Let’s assume that consumers are not stupid and can tell when the produce they have bought has gone bad. If not, we have a bigger problem in the country.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

The expiration dates on products are often on the conservative side to “protect” consumers. I think that life expectancy of items — and standards — should be reevaluated by type of product to address waste and safety.

Craig Sundstrom

How many times do need to discuss this same topic? There may or may not be better ways to handle food and reduce waste — a certain amount of waste is always going to occur because of conflicts between supply and demand (i.e. we’d rather have too much than risk having too little) — but reducing the amount of info people receive is never one of them.

Brad Halverson

Extending shelf life and best-by time limits is a noble idea, but operationally not a one-size-fits-all solution in grocery.

For conventional stores, extending produce life could be acceptable, especially on items where taste matters less.

For quality stores, where key produce items are intended to be eaten at peak of freshness, and when local seasonality is crucial to brand differentiation, you want customers to taste it at its best — not “lets give it another 3 days and it should be fine.”

Extending dairy, milk or yogurt? That’s a safety ballgame. Sniff test interpretations and variabilities come into play. Be ready to increase your risk, customer complaints.

"This is insane. Better we should avoid the topic of spoilage?"
"These food expiration dates have always confused shoppers. But doing away with these advisories would cause a shopper backlash."
"Expiration dates on products make sense if there is a chance of pathogenic spoilage or a loss of efficacy."

Take Our Instant Poll

How receptive would Americans be to removing "best before" dates on produce to reduce food waste?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...