Calls to extend use-by, best-before dates to reduce waste

Calls to extend use-by, best-before dates to reduce waste

Supermarkets reaping big profits are slow to support the removal of unnecessary use-by-date labels as Australian food waste soars, according to information gathered by The Australia Institute.

Key points:

  • The Australia Institute says supermarkets are making $1.2 billion a year in profit due to food waste
  • It says regulation of best-before and use-by dates needs to be changed
  • Supermarkets say they are not opposed to labelling reform

The public policy think tank said Australians wasted 7.6 million tonnes of food each year, costing households $19.3 billion in 2018–19.

The institute’s 2021 National Food Waste Strategy Feasibility Study found the average Australian household wasted between $2,000 and $2,500 worth of food each year. 

In its September 2023 discussion paper, the think tank said profits gained from food waste presented supermarkets with a strong incentive to resist policy changes to remove best-before dates on products that did not need them.

Australia Institute polling showed strong support for policies that would reduce food waste, including labelling reform, relaxed cosmetic standards, and kerbside
collection of food waste.

Senior economist Matt Grudnoff said consumers were concerned about waste and change was not happening fast enough.

Matt Grudnoff says UK supermarkets have removed best-before dates on hundreds of items.(Supplied: Matt Grudnoff)

“It’s high time for the government to act on food labelling reform and the other recommendations of the National Food Waste Strategy Feasibility Study,” Mr Grudnoff said.

“It proposed removing best-before dates from products that do not need them, scrapping sell-by and display-until dates, and extending allowable use-by dates for long-life products.”

Is it safe?

Mr Grudnoff said the changes were not about selling unsafe food but relaxing Australia’s strict food safety standards.

“In the UK, supermarkets have removed best-before dates on hundreds of items including pre-packaged fruit and veg like apples, potatoes and broccoli,” he said.

“This empowers customers to use their own judgement rather than throw out perfectly good food that has passed its best-before date.”

The institute said the two largest supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, accounted for at least 70 per cent of packaged grocery sales and 50 per cent of fresh produce sales.

It said about 10 per cent of food waste was related to the cosmetic standards retailers enforced on farmers.

Farmers believe perfectly edible food is rejected by supermarkets based on appearance alone, the institute said, and they often did not speak up for fear of losing business.

“There is so much food waste at the farmers’ end,” Mr Grudnoff said.

“They are required to only sell products that meet certain cosmetic standards … they’re the ones who have to carry the costs.”

About 10 per cent of food waste is related to the cosmetic standards retailers enforce on farmers.(iStock: Fresh bio-waste and compost by maerzkind)

An Australia Institute poll of more than 1,000 participants showed 78 per cent were in favour of labelling reform and 72 per cent favoured relaxed cosmetic standards.

Supermarkets not opposed to reform

In response, Woolworths said it worked hard to reduce food waste and was not opposed to expiry date reforms.

“As a retailer, extending the shelf life of products we sell can actually help us,” a spokesperson said.

“We are on the steering committee of a cross-industry research group working to improve date labelling and storage advice to reduce food waste.

“We support any sensible date label reforms to reduce food waste and increase shelf life.”

Coles said changing use-by labelling practices would need to involve an industry-wide approach, with consumer education.

“While this is something that could be considered, a change like this would require a planned and coordinated customer education, regulatory consultation with relevant food waste initiatives, and industry approval,” a Coles spokesperson said.

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