Date Marking is Poorly Understood by Europeans, Leading to Vast Food Waste

14 Oct 2015 — The European Commission has published the results of the first Flash Eurobarometer survey on food waste and date marking. Key findings confirm that date marking (“use by” and “best before”) is poorly understood by Europeans. Just under half (47%) of Europeans understand the meaning of “best before” labelling and somewhat fewer (40%) are aware of the meaning of “use by.”

The study confirms the need to pursue targeted information and educational initiatives on date marking taking into account the level of understanding and information needs of different consumer groups in EU countries. The Commission will propose initiatives against food waste as part of the new circular economy package to be presented by the end of the year.

European Commissioner in charge of Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis said: “If we do nothing, food waste could rise to over 120 million tonnes by 2020. In Europe alone, it accounts for estimated annual losses of €200 billion to the European economy. Food waste reduction requires commitment and action from farm to fork, and I am pleased to see that over three-quarters of Europeans recognise their own role alongside other actors. By working together to prevent food waste, we can save valuable food resources, money and lower our environmental footprint.”

The main findings of the report were as follows:
•    The majority of Europeans recognise that they themselves have a role to play in preventing food waste. Over three-quarters (76%) of Europeans think that the individual consumer is one of the actors involved in the prevention of food waste, compared with less than a half (49%) who consider that the state has a role to play.

•    Europeans also highlight the important role of economic actors in the food supply chain, identifying the responsibility of shops and retailers (62%), the hospitality and food service sectors (62%) as well as food manufacturers (52%).

•    The majority of Europeans also emphasise individual responsibility when it comes to ways to reduce food waste, with nearly two thirds (63%) saying that better shopping and meal planning would contribute to the reduction of waste. Clearer information regarding date marking and on food labels more generally (e.g. food storage and preparation) is cited by nearly one in two respondents as a means of preventing household food waste. However, there are significant differences between countries on this question.

•    Nearly six in ten Europeans (58%) state that they always check “use by” and “best before” labels when shopping and preparing meals, with very few indicating that they never do (only 3%). Young people are significantly less likely to check these labels: just over four in ten (44%) of those aged between 15 and 24 do this, compared with over six in ten (61%) of those aged 55 or over.

•    The Eurobarometer findings confirm that the meaning of date marking found on food products is poorly understood. Just under half (47%) of Europeans understand the meaning of “best before” labelling and somewhat fewer (40%) are aware of the meaning of “use by”. In both cases, a quarter or more think, incorrectly, that the meaning of date marking differs according to the type of food for which it is used.

•    There is significant country-level divergence in both awareness and conceptual understanding of “use by” and “best before” labelling. When asked about the meaning of these two types of dates, in some countries, notably Romania and Greece, a large majority gave the “use by” definition in both cases, whereas in others, such as Sweden, a majority gave the “best before” definition in both cases.

•    There are also significant sociodemographic differences on this question. Those aged between 25 and 39 are more likely than people in other age groups to know the meaning of “best before” (53%) and “use by” (46%) dates. The same is true for people who left education at an older age: 53% of those who left education at the age of 20 or older know the meaning of “best before”, compared with 36% of those who left education aged 15 years or under. The difference is less pronounced with respect to knowledge of the meaning of “use by”, with 43% and 36%, respectively.

•    Less than half (44%) of Europeans say that they would miss “best before” labelling if it were no longer found on certain non-perishable foods. Nearly six in ten (58%) respondents in Member States that entered the EU from 2004 onwards (NMS 13 countries) would prefer “best before” labelling to remain, compared with only four in ten (40%) in EU15 countries.

•    Over two thirds (70%) of Europeans state that if they found a package of spaghetti in their kitchen cupboard without “best before” labelling, they would utilise the food regardless of the absence of date marking.

•    People are more likely to throw away food without date marking in countries where there is uncertainty over the meaning of “best before” dates, such as Greece (50%), Bulgaria (47%) and Cyprus (44%).

•    Most people continue to use opened food products after the recommended storage period indicated on the label has passed. Nearly six in ten (59%) give this reply, compared with just under a third (31%) who throw food away after the stipulated date.

On 15 October Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis will attend a high level, international conference titled “Fight Food Waste, Feed the Planet!” that will take place at the EXPO Milan 2015. Speakers will include representatives from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), governments, NGOs (Slow Food, the European Federation of Food Banks) and food business (Belgian Farmers’ Union, Boerenbond, Nestlé and Colruyt).

The European Union has identified resource efficiency and waste management as key elements of EU environmental policy and the Europe 2020 strategy. The Commission is currently reflecting on the scope of a new, more ambitious Circular Economy package to be published by the end of 2015 and considers it as a possible opportunity for further actions aimed at strengthening resource efficiency in the food chain and preventing food waste. This survey seeks to understand citizens’ perceptions, attitudes and practices related to the management and consumption of food resources, and more specifically, to investigate the role of date marking found on food labelling in relation to food waste. Findings from this study will help inform possible future policy making in this area.

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