Changes to food packaging and labels could save UK homes £1 billion annually

27th February 2017
  • WRAP’s Retailer Survey finds food packaging and labelling has improved but there is more to do*
  • Confusing multiple date labels** mostly removed
  • Good progress on improving freezing guidance
  • Conflicting guidance on fridge temperature still found on many foods
  • Some product date labels have cut the time available to eat our food. 

Analysis by the resource efficiency experts shows that around 350,000 tonnes of avoidable household food waste, worth an estimated £1 billion annually, could be prevented through further changes to key food items in the UK’s shopping aisles. The financial benefits of making priority technical*** changes to food packaging and labels have been outlined in WRAP’s latest Retailer Survey.

Today’s announcement comes as part of WRAP’s long-standing work with retailers and food manufacturers to help consumers waste less food. This latest edition assesses how retailers and food manufacturers have progressed against the organisation’s original recommendations****.

Steve Creed, Director at WRAP, said “We know that changes to packs and labels, which give clarity around date and storage options, can have a dramatic effect on how much good food ends up in the bin so getting the right messages in place is critical. Around 150,000 tonnes of household food waste was avoided in 2015 compared to 2007, as a result of technical changes to products, saving UK families around £400 million a year.”

“Our report shows a mixed bag in terms of overall results. There are areas where good work continues to make a real difference and others where there is room for improvement. These insights provide a crucial snapshot of what industry is doing, and where more work is needed. They will help us drive forward change under Courtauld Commitment 2025, and will play a big part in re-energising the stall in household food waste reduction, that we recently identified. In fact, we are in discussions with the sector about trialling practical solutions that focus on making advice on storing and using our food as clear as possible.”

Key findings against WRAP recommendations

  • The number of products found to have two date labels fell from almost 40% in 2009 to less than 3% in 2015. Multiple labels confuse shoppers and WRAP found an almost complete removal of ‘Display Until’ dates used in combination with either a ‘Use By’ or ‘Best Before’ date. 
  • Two high-volume products (hard cheese and pasteurised fruit juice) have moved away from predominantly carrying ‘Use By’ labels to specifying a ‘Best Before’ date instead. This move gives consumers more time to eat the product and shows that industry can re-assess what date mark products should carry – and make significant changes – an action WRAP outlined in its Product Life Report in 2015. 
  • More action is needed around freezing guidance.  While good progress has been made in moving away from ‘Freeze on day of purchase’ guidance to ‘Freeze before the date shown’, more action is needed on meat and bakery products.  The use of the Snowflake logo to show suitability for home freezing has declined, and there is an urgent need to reinforce its value on pack.
  • Good progress has been made on when to offer ‘Open life’ guidance once a product’s packaging has been opened (‘once opened use within x days’). This should only be used on products where food safety is an issue. WRAP did note examples where the amount of time recommended for keeping food has been reduced; particularly for chilled chicken, cooking sauces and milk. This cuts down the time available to eat the food and with around two million tonnes of food discarded due to it ‘not being used in time’ – and date guidance cited as a factor for this – this remains a significant area to address. 
  • Most products now carry storage guidance**** consistent with WRAP recommendations but action is needed on bread***** and potatoes. 
  • Guidance on refrigerating products is largely consistent with recommendations. However, varying temperatures are used on similar products such as chilled cooking sauces, cheese and yoghurts and a significant percentage were found to cite temperature ranges outside current guidelines. This is a concern as WRAP has found that as few as a third of UK fridges are set within the recommended temperature range (below 5oC), and another third operate above  9oC. Guiding the use of fridges at correct temperature of 5oC or lower and storing the right foods in the fridge, which labelling can support, could add on average 3 days life to food and save households £280 million a year.  
  • There has been an increase in the availability of smaller pack options in a number of categories such as bagged salads, pre-packed apples, carrots, potatoes, mayonnaise and cheese. However, the frequency of smaller pack sizes in some food categories has dropped, particularly for pre-packed bread and world breads and smaller loaves remain significantly more expensive on a per kilo basis than larger loaves.

WRAP is currently working with UK Governments and the FSA on updating guidance on the application of on-pack date and related advice (storage and freezing guidance). This review will open for public consultation in the spring, with new guidance expected to be published in autumn 2017. WRAP is also working with retailers and manufacturers through its food sustainability initiative Courtauld Commitment 2025, an ambitious voluntary agreement that brings together organisations across the food system – from producer to consumer – to make food and drink production and consumption more sustainable.  

Heather Hancock, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency said: “The findings from this survey are very encouraging, but I think that there is still more that can be done, which is why the FSA is working closely with WRAP on updating the guidance on the application of on pack dates and related storage advice. I believe it is important that information available on pack not only helps to ensure people have safe food, but that it makes it as easy as possible for them to manage and store their food to ensure less is wasted’.

Notes to editor

  • *The Retailer Survey provides a snapshot on progress in implementing changes for key products. It is used to inform WRAP’s work with retailers and manufacturers through Courtauld 2025. The results from the 2015 fieldwork have already been used in discussions with businesses and further progress will therefore have been made, which will be captured in future reporting.
  • **‘Eggs are excluded from the analysis as legally they are required to carry both a ‘Display Until’ date and a ‘Best Before’. 
  • *’**Technical changes refer to changes made to labels or packaging in order to make it easier for people to buy the right amount of food and make use of what they buy (e.g. type of date label, freezing guidance or pack size/split packs etc.) 
  • ****Based on extensive evidence and in consultation with industry, WRAP developed a series of recommendations for how changes to food products, packaging and labelling could help consumers buy the right amount of food, and waste less.  More details of WRAP recommendations can be found in ‘How to apply date labels to help prevent food waste’, ‘Freezing guidance to prevent food waste’ and in the Retailer Survey, 2011
  • ***** Advice not to store bread in the fridge - where it goes stale much faster - is being removed. Advice on storing potatoes varies by retailer. The guidance should be consistent; for example to store potatoes in a cool, dark place (but not the fridge). 
  • The current survey included visits to 78 stores across England, Wales and Scotland including 5 online orders and covering the range of formats from larger supermarkets / hypermarkets, to smaller supermarket, convenience stores, discount stores, online retailers and other outlets (grocery sales from predominately non-food retailers). Nine retailers participated in the survey: Aldi, Asda, Lidl, Morrisons, M&S, Sainsbury’s, The Co-Operative, Tesco and Waitrose. The products surveyed were those most commonly wasted in the home and twenty categories were sampled (9,000 items): apples, bacon, bread rolls, bread, carrots, cheese, chicken, chilled juice, cooking sauce, eggs, ham, mayonnaise, milk, dried pasta, potatoes, ready meals, rice, salad, world breads and yoghurt.
  • Display Until dates are used by some retailers on their own, usually on foods such as pre-packed fresh produce which are not legally required to carry a Use By or Best Before date.  
  • WRAP published its report Reducing food waste by extending product life in 2015 which demonstrated the business case for preventing food waste by reviewing and extending product life.
  • First established in 2000, WRAP is a not for profit organisation and registered charity whose vision is a world where resources are used sustainably. WRAP works with governments, businesses and communities to deliver practical solutions to improve resource efficiency.
  • Our mission is to accelerate the move to a sustainable resource-efficient economy through: 

a. re-inventing how we design, produce and sell products,

b. re-thinking how we use and consume products, and

c. re-defining what is possible through re-use and recycling.