The cost-of-living crisis is biting hard. As food and fuel prices continue to climb, millions of people are facing stark choices. According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), food affordability and food insecurity is currently the most important aspect in consumer decision-making and the way that people think and feel about food.
When asked, 76% of people in the UK reported the price of food as a major concern for the future, with food prices a ‘flashpoint’ of deep public concern and worry: 22% of those in Northern Ireland spontaneously mentioned food prices as an area of future concern – well ahead of any other spontaneous mentions.
Many will be ‘trading down’ in brands to save on their weekly shop but increasing numbers are skipping meals, eating smaller portions and struggling to eat healthily. October’s food insecurity tracker, published by the Food Foundation, showed a “rapidly worsening picture”: 9.7 million adults or nearly one in five households (18%) in the UK have been unable to afford or get food, which is double the number affected in January. Such food insecurity now affects 4 million children in the UK.
In Northern Ireland, 31% of respondents to a recent FSA survey reported behaviours associated with ‘low’ or ‘very low’ food security (the UK average was 28%). As such, they’ve reduced the quality or variety of food they eat, are not eating when hungry, or have been skipping meals for financial reasons.
But there is another emerging “knock on effect” from this that relates to food safety, as the FSA’s Ayla Ibrahimi Jarchlo explained during a recent safefood event: “Risky food behaviours are reported more by those who are food insecure.”
Indeed, 53% of those who are very food insecure will ‘occasionally’ wash raw poultry (compared to 35% of those who are food secure), while 37% are buying food and eating it after its use by date. That’s “not a good idea”, says FSA deputy director of food policy Natasha Smith.
Those facing food insecurity are also less likely to know the recommended fridge temperature (0°C to 5°C). Others are even turning the fridge and freezer off for periods of time to save money. Another bad idea because of the role the appliances have in preventing bacteria multiplying on the food and preserving food for longer.
People are also eating cold meals and washing dishes in cold water. Almost one in three people (29%) the FSA quizzed in September lowered the cooking temperature for food, and a similar number (30%) reduced the length of time they were cooking food for. Around one in four (24%) reported eating cold food because they couldn’t afford to heat it up. Like use by dates, cooking and storage instructions have been developed with the specific product in mind and are a critical component of food safety.
Anna Taylor, executive director at the Food Foundation recently referred to these risky trade-offs as “an interface between energy and food with a knock-on impact of safety and the quality of what people are eating”. She told UK MPs recently of parents who are debating whether to cook an evening meal or to keep the broadband on so their children can do their homework.
Kimberley Carey Coffin, global technical director for supply chain assurance at LRQA, says the statistics are “frightening”. She adds: “On a human level, it is saddening to know that the current inflationary pressures are driving people to make choices about what they eat and how they store and cook food which are in direct conflict with the science of food safety.”
Indeed, there must be a hard line defining when a food becomes inedible due to safety risks and consumers must understand this limit. Unfortunately, many don’t.
The EU’s food labelling regulation states that most pre-packed food products must display either a ‘use by’ or a ‘best before’ date – the former plays a critical role in food safety (after this date, foods are by definition deemed ‘unsafe’) while the latter is about the quality of the product. The dates are the source of confusion amongst consumers, resulting in good food being thrown away prematurely.
Research by Anthesis, a consultancy, in 2018 showed confusion over current date marking practices and other food label information could be causing up to 10% of the 88 million tonnes of food waste generated annually in the EU. Problems were identified throughout the supply chain from farm to fork. “A lot of the confusion is hidden from the consumer as there are plenty of food products with ‘use by’ dates when ‘best before’ would be more appropriate,” explains Anthesis technical director Julian Parfitt.
The study showed that of the 10 categories of food assessed only three (sliced bread, tomato ketchup and chilled fresh juice) had consistent date marking across the European eight countries where the consultants went grocery shopping. “Part of the answer is to reform date marking so that it is more appropriate to the food safety risk, another part is to get the public better informed about the distinction between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates,” Parfitt adds.
That the difference between a ‘best before’ date and a ‘use by’ date is not sufficiently clear for consumers was highlighted by the European Commission in its communication on the farm to fork strategy. The strategy includes a revision of rules on date marking, albeit with the objective of reducing food waste, explains Nicolas Carbonnelle, a partner at law firm Bird & Bird based in Brussels. This is yet to see the light of day but “hopefully it will generate momentum for filling the education gap with consumers”, he adds.
Dominic Watkins, a partner at law firm DWF and an expert in food law, says the labelling laws are clear but the percentage of products that unnecessarily have a use by date must be reduced to “the lowest possible number”. This, he explains, should ensure that consumers can then make their own decisions regarding whether the product is still of an acceptable quality rather than there being any concerns about safety. However, whenever this occurs people raise concerns about safety, he adds.
It’s the food company’s responsibility to decide whether to use a ‘best before’ or a ‘use by’ date. If they can show their product is not going to cause an imminent danger to human health after the ‘use by’ date then there is no need for one. “The manufacturer knows its products and will have detailed life and microbiological studies showing precisely this,” Watkins explains. “If there is no risk of (imminent) danger then both legally and morally it should apply a best before date. The product will be safe,” he adds.
If only it were that simple. When brands try to lead this change there is scepticism and regulatory concern and they can be roundly criticised for placing people at risk, regardless of the facts.
In 2021, Danone switched from ‘use by’ to ‘best before’ on its pots of yoghurt and encouraged customers to “use their senses” rather than only looking at the date labels. The European Commission was seemingly nervous about such a move, according to reports at the time. Coffin at LRQA says such moves are “commendable” and help to educate consumers and reduce food waste. There are however concerns linked to placing science in the hands of a consumer, she adds. “They’re relying on sensory skills to determine if food is fit for consumption [so] the label alone may provide consumers with a false sense of security unless it is accompanied with the information, they need to determine what ‘unsafe’ looks, tastes and smells like.”
Technology could well (in time) play a role. Swedish startup Innoscentia, for example, is testing a prototype label that changes colours depending on when meat is no longer safe to eat. The company has been working with the Emballator Innovation Centre, Sweden, to find a solution that lets the substances from the meat through but not the ink through from the other side. Foodnavigator.com also recently reported that the business is working with Canadian tech firm Ynvisible on a digital platform for the labels that will transfer information to for example mobile phones.
ColorSensing, a Spanish startup supported by EIT Food, is working on approval from the European Food Safety Authority for its smart label that can check for leaks, cold chain breaks and freshness. There’s also Oli-Tec, a smart label that transitions from yellow to red, with the pace of change depending on the temperature (cooler temperatures slow the process down). Previous research has suggested such labels could reduce in-store waste by 20%.
More prototypes are in the pipeline but for now the cost of the labels can be prohibitive. That means sticking with the labels we have – and relying more on consumers.
Danone is among a growing number of food manufacturers backing the anti-food waste app, ‘Too good to go’, which runs the ‘Look, smell, taste, don’t waste’ campaign. Research conducted by Too good to go in October showed 50% of the British public are throwing away less food than they were last year in an effort to combat rising food costs. They are still chucking hundreds of pounds’ worth of groceries away annually though.
Indeed, there is a perverse situation, noted by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health recently, in which millions of people are being forced into food poverty yet over 500,000 tonnes of edible food is wasted every year. Perhaps now, with food prices spiking, presents the perfect opportunity to reduce food waste, to better communicate the important difference between date markings, and to push businesses to clean up any confusing labels.
‘Wrap’, a charity which tracks food waste levels closely, would like to see consumer-facing dates removed from fruit and veg. Date labels on uncut fruit and veg are not a legal requirement but the use of ‘best before’ dates influences thousands of people to throw everything from cucumbers to strawberries in the bin prematurely. Binning the labels would save some 7 million shopping baskets of fruit and veg waste a year, says Wrap.
“Keeping people safe is obviously of the utmost importance but so is reducing food waste, not only from a climate change perspective [food waste languishing in landfills is after all a major source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas] but also because it costs the average family in the UK around £700 annually,” says a spokesperson.
It seems that a balance between food waste and safety needs to be struck. “It’s great that people are trying to minimise food waste, but there are lots of ways to do that without gambling with your health,” says the FSA’s Smith. Unfortunately, this winter too many households could be left without any choice.
David Burrows is a freelance writer specialising in sustainability within the food chain. A graduate in agricultural sciences, he researches and writes features and reports for publications including Just-Food.com, FoodNavigator.com, FoodserviceFootprint.com, Poultry Business, Pig World, The Grocer, and Transform.