A prominent campaigner on reducing food waste has slammed a leading supermarket for issuing confusing messages to its customers. Jonathan Straight, brand ambassador at food redistribution specialists Surplus Group, has called their behaviour “clueless”, especially in light of other high-profile initiatives the company has taken to reduce waste.
Ocado customers receive a delivery note that details how long food should be stored. The phrase “use by” is employed for everything purchased, even though many of the products listed will have a “best before” date printed on the packaging.
While this may sound insignificant, the implications are enormous. A “use by” date is about food safety; a “best before” date is about food quality and can – arguably should – be ignored.
Food that has passed its “use by” date may be dangerous to eat and should be disposed of. It is illegal to sell food that has passed this date – in fact, it is even illegal to give it away. On the other hand, the “best before” date is nothing more than a mark of food quality and items which have passed the “best before” date may still be perfectly good to eat. People can make up their minds if they wish to consume it.
Surplus Group, which owns the online surplus redistribution supermarket Approved Food, works tirelessly to educate customers about the difference between the two kinds of pack labelling.
Yet many consumers remain confused about the meaning of dates on food leading to perfectly good food going to waste. Surveys suggest that less than half of consumers know the difference between the two types of date. Any work undertaken to educate the public is swiftly undermined when a major retailer apparently does not know the difference.
According to charity WRAP, we waste 9.5 million tonnes of food annually in the UK, and some 70% of this waste is generated by the public in their homes. This food will have used valuable resources in its production, packaging and delivery and wasting it is a key cause of climate change. WRAP has set an ambitious target to reduce per-capita food waste by half by 2030 – a target supported by much of the food industry and many retailers, including Ocado. This target will only be achieved if individuals manage to change their wasteful habits, and clear, well-understood labelling forms a big part of this.
Ocado is well aware of this issue. In a blog on its website titled Food Waste – debunking the myths from October 2020, it says, “Use-by dates and best before dates can be a minefield…,” before clearly explaining the difference between the two kinds of date and encouraging customers to eat food that has passed its best before date. In March of this year, they scrapped best before dates on some fresh uncut fruit and vegetables to prevent thousands of tonnes from going to waste. Their customers can now decide for themselves when the product is past its best. Other retailers have also taken action, such as Morrisons changing the “use by” dates on its milk to “best before” with the goal of preventing useable milk from being thrown away. Obviously, the strategy will only work if consumers understand the difference.
In an order recently placed by Surplus Group with Ocado, items listed as “use by” on the delivery note included baked beans, pasta, tinned soup, cans of fish, jam and honey; all products that are labelled “best before” on the packaging and all of which can be safely be consumed long after the date has passed. Some dates were three and four years in the future.
Jonathan Straight said, “In our view, this is beyond unforgivable. A whole industry is working to educate its customers to waste less. Yet every one of Ocado’s one and a half million customers has potentially seen this highly confusing and irresponsible communication”.
“We are calling on Ocado to immediately change its delivery notes to correctly identify the difference between what can be safely eaten past the date on the packaging and that which cannot – a list of products that are “use by” and another list that are “best before,” along with explanatory text about what the dates mean. This should not present too much of a challenge for a business that was once the UK’s biggest tech stock.
“Furthermore, if Ocado is serious about cutting waste, we urge it to open up its supply chain for own-label goods.” Climate action NGO WRAP has stated that almost 200,000 tonnes of perfectly good food in the supply chain goes to waste yearly.
“Allowing businesses like Surplus Group to purchase its own-brand stock that might go to waste due to being close to, or beyond, the “best before” date will help to reduce waste. Surprisingly, many charities will still not handle food like this, and Surplus Group has 500,000 savvy customers waiting to buy it.”
Surplus Group is a leading food redistribution business with its headquarters in Barnsley. The group comprises B2C online surplus supermarket approvedfood.co.uk, B2B surplus wholesaler Morris & Son and a social enterprise, Surplus for Good. The Group employs around 90 staff at its two sites in Barnsley and its confectionary wholesale business in Cheshire.
The Approved Food division is the UK’s largest online-only retailer of surplus and short-dated food and drink. It has served more than 350,000 customers, with more than 1 million orders direct to the end consumer. This division has rescued more than 25,000 tonnes of food, representing 60,000,000 meals.
Morris & Son is a residual and clearance stock specialist that serves businesses in the value wholesale and retail sector. The business includes an in-house repacking factory which takes problem stock from biscuit and confectionery manufacturers and packs these into its own Keepers Choice and House of Candy branded packaging.
Dr Jonathan Straight FRSA is a Yorkshire-based entrepreneur, creative and food waste campaigner who is brand ambassador for Surplus Group. He sits on the Courtauld 2030 Steering Group and the Redistribution Working Group. He is a former Chair of The Real Junk Food Project charity.
Ocado is an online supermarket. An order for various goods was placed late in June 2022 and was delivered on Wednesday, 22 June. Despite almost all of the goods ordered having a “best before” date on the packaging, some with several years to run, the delivery note erroneously stated “products with a “use-by” date over one week. Given the widespread confusion about food labelling (Arla Foods, September 2019 https://bit.ly/3uzytKT), incorrect terminology will likely lead to more widespread waste.
The order placed included foods that will last a long time due to pickling, fruit preserves, tinned foods which last for many years, dried foods and honey – a food that lasts indefinitely (US National Honey Board). A “use-by” date is inappropriate for all of these foods.
WRAP is a UK NGO which monitors UK surplus food as part of its food waste prevention work. On 6 July 2022, it published a report on the progress made in redistributing surplus food. While reporting a significant rise in the amount of surplus food recovered, it stated that almost 200,000 tonnes of perfectly good food in the supply chain was still going to waste.