Better understanding and use of date marking on food, i.e. "use by" and "best before" dates, by all actors concerned, can prevent and reduce food waste in the EU.
A study carried out by the European Commission (2018), estimates that up to 10% of the 88 million tonnes of food waste generated annually in the EU are linked to date marking.
In order to help inform its work on date marking, the Commission launched a study to map how date marking is used in the market by food business operators and control authorities.
The market study found wide variation in date marking practices within product categories surveyed in the EU. The legibility of date marks was judged to be poor for 11% of products sampled. The study highlights the role that strengthened cooperation and innovation in the food supply chain can play in preventing food waste and finds that additional guidance may be needed to facilitate food redistribution past the "best before" date.
Based on the study's findings, the authors conclude that avoidable food waste linked to date marking is likely to be reduced where:
- a date mark is present, its meaning is clear and it is legible;
- consumers have a good understanding of the meaning of date marking (and the difference between "use by" as an indicator of safety and "best before" as an indicator of quality);
- "use by" dates are used only where there is a safety-based rationale for doing so, consistent with the Regulation on Food Information to Consumers
- the product life stated on the packaging is consistent with the findings of safety and quality tests, and is not shortened unnecessarily by other considerations, such as product marketing;
- storage and open life guidance are consistent with the findings of safety and quality tests;
- there is a level of consistency in storage of food at retail and guidance for consumers regarding the temperatures at which products should be stored in the home.
Consumers and date marking
Misinterpretation by consumers of the meaning of the "use by" and "best before" dates can contribute to household food waste. As called for by the new Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission will propose, by the end of 2022, the revision of EU rules on date marking. In doing so, the Commission aims to prevent food waste linked to misunderstanding and/or misuse of these dates, whilst ensuring that any proposed change meets consumers’ information needs and does not jeopardise food safety.
The Commission is currently carrying out an impact assessment (with public and targeted consultations) to support its proposal, as well as consumer research to identify new ways of expressing date marking that meet consumers’ information needs whilst minimising food waste. The Commission published its inception impact assessment on 23 December 2020, which considers different policy options and describes the work that will be carried out in this regard. The document is publicly available here.
Consumer research to support the proposal to revise EU rules on date marking
The consumer research findings will shed light on how consumers themselves understand and use these dates and will identify and test new ways of expressing date marking (e.g. changes in terminology, format, visual presentation) in order to identify options that meet consumers’ information needs, whilst avoiding unnecessary food waste linked to the misunderstanding and misuse of date marking.
The consumer research is on-going and so far the contractor in charge of this work has carried out:
- an inventory and review of evidence on consumer behaviour regarding date marking and food waste;
- stakeholder interviews (including with national authorities);
- consumer focus groups across 10 Member States during which a set of policy options has been tested.
Following the focus groups, policy options (in all EU official languages) have been further refined in view of testing these through quantitative consumer research to be carried out through online surveys in 27 Member States and, at a final stage, through a laboratory experiment in selected Member States to assess how these policy options influence consumers’ decision-making process.
On 30 November 2021, the Commission held an online targeted consultation, with members of the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste and food labelling experts from the Member States, related to the revision of EU date marking rules and this consumer research. The aim was to exchange with participants on the date marking policy options developed so far to help inform the next phases of this work. Comments received will allow further refining of these options before proceeding with fieldwork to test the effectiveness of the selected policy options in avoiding food waste linked to date marking.
Background material of this meeting:
- Flash Eurobarometer 425 on food waste and date marking
In 2015, the Commission carried out pan-European quantitative consumer research in order to find out more about people's attitudes to food waste prevention. The study also looked into citizen's awareness, understanding and use of date marking on food products.
- Behavioural study on consumer choices linked to date marking
During EXPO 2015, a behavioural study on consumers' food choices and eating habits was conducted to explore how consumers respond to the absence of "best before" dates on shelf stable, non-perishable foods such as: pasta, coffee, UHT orange juice and canned tomato sauce. The study highlights the importance of the "best before" date in reassuring consumers about product quality and safety throughout their shelf life. The presence of the "best before" date also reduces the likelihood of consumers throwing away foods before the end of the period indicated on the food labels.
Food business operators and date marking
How date marking is utilised by food business operators and regulatory authorities in managing the supply chain can also have an impact on food waste. For example, the approaches followed by food business operators in defining date marking (e.g. whether to utilise a "use by" or "best before" date), market practices (such as the amount of shelf life required by retailers on product delivery) and national rules on the further distribution and use of foods past the "best before" date, can all influence the generation of food waste in the supply chain.
In this context, the Commission requested a scientific opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in order to support food business operators in the application of relevant EU rules. Helping food business operators in their decision making on the choice between "use by" or "best before" dates and on setting the appropriate shelf-life, storage conditions and open life instructions will improve the understanding and use of date marking and contribute to the better management of foods by all actors, which will have an impact on food waste reduction.
With the first scientific opinion (adopted in October 2020), EFSA experts have developed a risk-based approach to be followed by food business operators when deciding on the type of date marking (i.e. "use by" versus "best before" date), when setting the product shelf-life and when identifying the related information to provide on labelling in order to ensure food safety.
EFSA also developed a decision tree, consisting of a series of questions, to assist food business operators in choosing the type of date marking for their products.
- Guidance on date marking and related food information: part 1 (date marking), EFSA
- Presentation Platform meeting 10.12.2020 - Scientific opinion of the EFSA Panel on Biological Hazards – Guidance on date marking and related food information: part 1
The second opinion (adopted in March 2021), focusses on other food information aspects, such as storage conditions, time limits for consumption after opening, defrosting advice for consumers and thawing practices.
Sub-group on date marking and food waste prevention
A dedicated sub-group of the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste on date marking has been established to discuss possible options and help guide work in this area involving all actors concerned: public authorities in EU Member States, food business operators, consumer - and other NGOs.
The Commission also promotes better understanding and use of "use by" and "best before" dates by consumers, actors in the food chain and regulatory authorities. See the information materials below: