In the UK we throw away an estimated 7 million tonnes of food and drink per year. That equates to around £60 per month per family of four. This figure seems especially profligate when there are increasing numbers of people who cannot afford to feed themselves or their families properly; and even more so when you consider that half of this food and drink was still actually fit for consumption. So why do we keep throwing food away?
There are a number of reasons for this: we don’t plan weekly menus; we buy more food than we need (often taking advantage of bulk buying offers such as 2 for 1 deals); we eat out; we don’t fancy eating the food we’ve bought … the list goes on. Perhaps the biggest reason is that some people still don’t understand date labels.
The difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates
The old ‘sell-by’ date no longer appears on food and drink packaging, as consumers mistook it to mean ‘eat by’, when in actual fact it was a stock rotation device intended for retail staff. To try and avoid any confusion, pre-packaged goods now carry either a ‘use-by’ date or a ‘best before’ date – between which there is a world of difference.
To clarify, ‘use by’ dates are reserved for perishable products which have the potential to cause harm if not eaten by the specified date. These include eggs, milk and other dairy products, prepared salads, raw meat, poultry and fish, cooked meats, ready meals and so forth. As a rule they’re generally the foods found in the chiller cabinets in a supermarket. Eating these beyond the ‘use by’ date could leave you open to food poisoning so, even if the food looks and smells OK, you should discard it.
‘Best before’ on a food or drink label , on the other hand,means that the product may be eaten after the date printed, but the quality might not be as good – for example it might lose some of its former flavour or texture.
A legal requirement
Another reason why food is thrown away concerns the law. It is an offence under the Food Safety Act 1990 to sell food past its ‘use by’ date, so you will often find ‘on date’ items in the discounted sections of shops. Any items that remain unsold by the ‘use by’ date often find themselves in waste bins or skips, still in their original packaging. Tesco revealed that it generated 30,000 tonnes of food waste in the first six months of 2013, the majority of which was bakery items and fruit and vegetables. It seems scandalous that this is happening, just because the food has not been sold.
Skipchen café intercepts waste food
However, there are moves to put ‘on date’ food to good use. This week saw the opening of an eaterie in Bristol called ‘Skipchen.’ It is, as its name suggests, serving food which has been rescued from food skips, or intercepted from local restaurants. The food is on its ‘use-by’ date but Skipchen’s volunteer staff use it to make healthy meals. They are, as they say, saving food from being destroyed and redistributing it to those who need it most. Patrons of the establishment are not charged a set price- Skipchen is a not-for-profit outfit – instead they are encouraged to ‘pay as they feel.’
The café is based on a similar outlet opened in Armley, Leeds, by an organisation called The Real Junk Food Project – a collaboration between chefs and food activists. It has been intercepting food and serving up tasty dishes to appreciative punters since February 2013. Nobody has become ill from eating the food because it is collected directly from restaurants or rescued from skips as soon as it has been deposited. The food is either used immediately, refrigerated for use the same day or frozen for future use.
Correct storage essential for food safety
Storing food correctly is essential in order to guard against contamination or deterioration. ‘Use by’ and ‘best before’ dates can only be valid if the storage instructions are observed. For example, items such as biscuits or cereals which carry a ‘best before’ date will retain more of their flavour and texture if they are stored in a cool, dry environment. Similarly perishables like milk, yogurts, ready meals, salad etc. must be stored in a refrigerator or frozen, if applicable. If an item is frozen on the ‘use by’ date, it should be consumed on the day it is defrosted.
The way in which food is stored in refrigerators can also affect the safety of the food. Raw meat and poultry, for example, should be covered and stored on a low shelf. This way any juices cannot drip onto other foods. To see how to store food properly and how to make food go further, check out our previous post.
Obviously great care needs to be taken when preparing food for consumption. Indeed, anyone whose job involves preparing or serving food should have basic food safety and hygiene training as a minimum. We offer this as a modular online course which can be completed in a matter of hours, at your own pace. Please click here for further details.