Supermarket Ditches 'Best Before' Dates, Asks Shoppers to Use Their Own Judgment

Waitrose is the latest grocer to take action against superfluous food waste.

woman looking at bagged lettuce in supermarket

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Starting in September, shoppers at British supermarket chain Waitrose & Partners may notice a small yet significant difference. Nearly 500 fresh products will no longer have "best before" dates printed on them. This move is designed to reduce food waste by encouraging shoppers to use their own judgment as to whether a product is still good to eat, rather than relying on a printed date. 

The products range from lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and celery, to root vegetables, brassicas, citrus, exotic fruits, apples, melons, and more, as well as indoor potted plants and herbs. Potatoes happen to be the most-wasted food in the United Kingdom, followed by bread and milk, so hopefully this change will curb some of that waste.

Marija Rompani, director of sustainability and ethics at the John Lewis Partnership, which owns Waitrose, said in a press release that 70% of all food wasted in the U.K. happens at home. "U.K. households throw away 4.5 millions tonnes of edible food every year, meaning that all the energy and resources used in food production is wasted. By removing best before dates from our products, we want our customers to use their own judgement to decide whether a product is good to eat or not, which in turn will increase its chances of being eaten and not becoming waste."

This will save money at a time of rising food costs and increasing financial pressures. Food Ingredients First reported that, in July, many grocery shoppers in the U.K. were "shocked to discover security tagging on cheese, butter and other packaged foods as the skyrocketing cost of produce is taking product prices to record highs." 

Rompani points out that reducing waste is a logical first step in fighting these costs. "By using up existing fresh food in our homes, we can also save on our weekly household food shop, which is becoming an increasingly pressing concern for many."

Waitrose is not the only supermarket to make such changes in recent years. Another British chain, Morrison's, made headlines in January for eliminating use by dates on milk, urging customers instead to do a sniff test with their noses to determine whether or not the milk is still good to drink. Tesco got rid of best before dates on more than 100 fresh food products in 2018, and Marks & Spencer did the same this summer for over 300 products after a successful smaller trial.

'Best Before' vs. 'Use By'

People frequently misunderstand expiration dates and what they mean. "Best before" typically refers to the quality of a product and the date before which an item will have optimal taste and texture. Surpassing the date does not mean it goes bad after—just that it's less good. "Use by" refers to safety and will still be applied to Waitrose products where there's a risk of food poisoning if consumed after the date printed on its packaging. (There are exceptions if the item has been frozen ahead of its use by date.)

Expiration dates are somewhat sneaky in the world of food marketing. They are subject to no oversight or regulation (except for baby formula), and so are arbitrarily applied by food manufacturers that are motivated by wanting shoppers (a) to enjoy their products at peak quality, so as not to choose another brand next time, and (b) to buy more food. 

As Tamar Adler, author of "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace," told Vox, "It's in the general interest of anybody trying to sell anything to continue to perpetuate the illusion that our foods are going bad all the time. We could buy half as much food."

That is, of course, exactly what most people want to be able to do—so it may be liberating (and horrifying) to discover that much of what's been thrown away over the years could have been eaten instead. It's never too late to change, though. Catherine David, a spokesperson for the U.K. government-backed Waste Resources Action Programme (Wrap), estimates that Waitrose's removal of best before dates could save the equivalent of 7 million shopping baskets of food from landfill. 

David says, "There is loads more that we can do to tackle food waste together—for fresh produce it's also really important to store it in the fridge, and knock the temperature down to below 5°C [41°F]. WRAP found that apples last more than two months longer when refrigerated, and broccoli two weeks longer."

Other smart advice includes planning meals in advance, making a grocery list, stocking the pantry, using more delicate perishables like lettuce and greens ahead of sturdier vegetables, not shopping on an empty stomach, and freezing foods before they start to decline.