Use by dates and food waste: Morrisons’ adopts the sniff test

This week Morrisons announced that it would be scrapping ‘use by’ dates from most of its own brand milk. The supermarket’s bold move aims to tackle food waste.

Millions of pints of perfectly drinkable milk are poured away every week because they’re out of date. Morrisons will instead be asking consumers to use their judgement instead – using the ‘sniff test’ to determine whether the milk is still usable.

Use by dates and food waste

The UK wastes about 330,000 tonnes of milk every year – that’s around 7% of total UK milk production, according to the latest figures from environmental charity WRAP. Most of the wasted milk – more than 490 million pints – is thrown away in the home, making it the third most-wasted food and drink product in the UK (behind potatoes and bread).

Morrisons hopes that the move will make consumers less inclined to contribute to food waste and, ultimately, helping to reduce carbon emissions. It’s the first supermarket in the UK to make the change. In 2020, it scrapped ‘use by’ dates on some of its own-brand yoghurt and hard cheese ranges.

Best before vs use by

Milk sold by Morrisons will still bear a “best before” date. But this relates to food quality rather than safety. According to the Foods Standards Agency (FSA), food can still be safely consumed after its “best before” date. Anything after this date simply means it will not be at its finest (i.e., the flavour and texture might not be quite as good).

A ‘use by’ date is all about safety and tends to be present on products that go off quickly, such as meat products, smoked fish and ready-prepared salads. According to the FSA, to prevent health risks to consumers, food or drink must not be consumed after the “use by” date on the label.

The move by Morrisons is interesting as labelling has a considerable role to play in food waste. Research shows that the amount of product life available to householders significantly influences wastage rates, reducing wastage by up to 10% for every extra day of life.

Research also shows that fresh milk can often last several days past the “use by” date shown on the label. Meaning UK consumers are routinely and unnecessarily throwing away milk without realising that it may still be safe to drink or use in their tea or coffee.

Why “use by” is often best

When it comes to milk, customer discretion is to be welcomed. However, this approach isn’t suitable for all product types and risk profiles. WRAP, the FSA, and the UK government have devised guidance, including ‘decision trees’ to establish the most appropriate labelling to prevent food waste and prevent safety risks.

Milk, for instance, does not fit into the category of highly microbiologically perishable food (such as cold-smoked salmon or fresh pasta). Along with plain biscuits, bottled water and dried pasta – shelf-stable products – the use of a “best before” date can be considered on the labelling for these food products to best prevent food waste.

However, ready meals, cooked sliced meats, fresh-cut vegetables, sandwiches are all subject to microbiological changes after a short period, meaning harmful bacteria can multiply in them. This poses health risks, making the use of a “use by” date most appropriate for these product types.

How practical is the ‘sniff test’?

It’s worth noting, according to the FSA, the sniff test is not always trustworthy, as “You cannot see, smell or taste the bacteria that cause food poisoning”. Food and drink may look and even smell fine after its “use by” date, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for consumption.

Morrisons (as well as other retailers and the FSA) will likely need to engage in promotion and communication around the change. A sniff test needs to be done correctly. If the milk smells sour, then it may have spoiled. Of course, if you can see that it has curdled, then it’s most definitely not suitable for use.

Promoting the sniff test means putting more onus on sensory experiences that may be subjective. Some people took to Twitter in light of this news to point out that one of the main symptoms of COVID is a loss of smell or taste. Tackling food waste is to be welcomed, but I suspect there will be further developments in this area as consumers get used to the change.

For more insights into food safety and product development, visit Froghop’s resources section.

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