‘Nanny state’ food la­bels are past their sell-by date

Yorkshire Post - - OPINION -

SU­PER­MAR­KET SHOP­PING is a pet hate of this cor­re­spon­dent.

Firstly there are the smug hand-hold­ing cou­ples pick­ing out tasty lit­tle treats - “some stuffed olives dar­ling?” – and then noisy brats who ram the back of your an­kles while run­ning riot with trol­leys.

But, worst of all, the earnest mum­mies who ex­plain ev­ery lit­tle thing they are buy­ing with the pa­tro­n­is­ing tones of a pri­mary school teacher dur­ing an Of­sted in­spec­tion.

Tesco stores – mostly be­cause they are so huge it takes such a long time to get around them – haven’t been braved by this re­luc­tant shop­per for about a decade. But the firm does de­serve credit for its an­nounce­ment this week that it is to re­move ‘best be­fore’ dates from fruit and veg­etable lines.

There was a first wave of scrap­ping the of­ten con­fus­ing la­belling from 70 fruit and veg­etable lines back in May and now they will be re­moved from a fur­ther 116 prod­ucts in a PRsavvy bid to help re­duce food waste.

Date la­bels are im­me­di­ately dis­ap­pear­ing from fresh pro­duce such as own-brand ap­ples, oranges, cab­bages and asparagus. The think­ing be­hind the move is that no date la­bel will pre­vent food from be­ing thrown away while still ed­i­ble.

Per­son­ally, the fact that peo­ple have been chuck­ing some­thing like an ap­ple out just be­cause of a date on a la­bel is hugely wor­ry­ing and sym­bolic of the na­tion of nin­com­poops we have be­come.

My late grand­mother, in com­mon with thou­sands of oth­ers of her gen­er­a­tion, would go into town ev­ery Thurs­day – her hus­band drop­ping her off on the way to the cat­tle mar­ket – and buy fruit and veg from the mar­ket stalls.

Just like her mother would have done be­fore she’d have a good look at it, pick it up and feel it and – if in doubt – move along to an­other trader. She had con­fi­dence in her own opin­ion. She didn’t need a date-stamped cel­lo­phane wrap­per to tell her whether some­thing was worth buy­ing.

We bought a red cabbage for Christ­mas Day lunch and for­got to cook it. When it was fi­nally re-dis­cov­ered at the back of the fridge (with a best be­fore date of De­cem­ber 28) it seemed just the thing to have with an­other spe­cial meal... at Easter.

It was per­fectly fine. Wind­fall ap­ples have just been col­lected. They will be left in a shed over win­ter; we’ll still be go­ing and get­ting a few for a crum­ble when the clocks change next spring. Some will have gone rot­ten but oth­ers will be fine.

Some­times this at­ti­tude to­wards food gets this mother into trou­ble. On many oc­ca­sions over the years vis­it­ing teenagers have been left to get on with their tea only for one of mine to come through and say “You’re so em­bar­rass­ing – they no­ticed the date on the yo­ghurts you left out was over a week ago”.

With these dates, the nanny state ef­fec­tively took away a sub­stan­tial chunk of the pop­u­la­tion’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing abil­ity. It helped erode that com­mon sense abil­ity of my grand­mother’s gen­er­a­tion to be able look at a piece of food and know whether it was fresh or not and how quickly to get it eaten by.

In­ter­est­ingly, it’s taken the com­mon sense of a group my grand­mother was a mem­ber of – the Women’s In­sti­tute – to bring Tesco to its senses.

It was the WI that first made calls on su­per­mar­kets to sign up to a vol­un­tary agree­ment to avoid food waste and who did re­search to dis­cover that many fam­i­lies find the dates on pro­duce con­fus­ing.

Com­pul­sory ‘use by’ la­bels have to be put on foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy prod­ucts that carry a safety risk if eaten af­ter that date.

But the best be­fore dates put on fruit and veg­eta­bles are to show that al­though they may no longer be at their best, they are still safe to eat.

They all seem to blur into one in this re­luc­tant shop­per’s fridge, al­though it would be a lie not to ad­mit to oc­ca­sion­ally com­ing across the odd bit of fish or milk that even the cat turns its nose up at.

This week’s date an­nounce­ment comes in con­junc­tion with a push by Tesco to work with sup­pli­ers to fig­ure out ways to use as much of their crop as pos­si­ble, for ex­am­ple al­low­ing more ‘wonky’ veg on the shelves and cre­at­ing new prod­ucts to use up food that is still ed­i­ble.

Food waste is a huge is­sue in the UK. Some £13bn of ed­i­ble food is thrown away from homes ev­ery year and, ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment’s waste ad­vi­sory body Wrap, a fur­ther £3bn is wasted by the hos­pi­tal­ity and food ser­vice sec­tor.

Way back in 2016, France took the lead on this sub­ject, ban­ning su­per­mar­kets from throw­ing away un­sold food and re­quir­ing them in­stead to do­nate un­wanted items to char­i­ties and food banks.

There is some­thing sad about the way our pop­u­la­tion has be­come in­creas­ingly averse to risk-tak­ing. Go on, go mad and make this the day you eat an ap­ple the day af­ter its best be­fore date…

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