In the olden days, before we had fridges and airtight containers, people had to rely on their noses to detect whether food was still usable, or had gone off. Now, we expect manufacturers and retailers to let us know exactly how long we can keep the food we just bought, with 'use-by' dates guiding our decisions over what stays safely in the fridge.
Now, however, Morrisons supermarket is set to scrap 'use by' dates on most of its milk in a bid to reduce food waste.
From the end of January, the retailer will instead stamp “best before” dates on 90% of its own-brand milk and will encourage customers to use a sniff test to check quality.
It believes the move will stop millions of pints of its own-brand milk from being thrown away every year. Recycling charity Wrap says Morrisons is the first supermarket to announce the move. Marcus Gover, of Wrap, said: “I am delighted that Morrisons is the first UK supermarket to take this important step to help reduce household food waste – it shows real leadership and we look forward to more retailers reviewing date labels on their products and taking action.”
Ian Goode, senior milk buyer at Morrisons, said: “Wasted milk means wasted effort by our farmers and unnecessary carbon being released into the atmosphere.
“Good quality well-kept milk has a good few days' life after normal ‘use by’ dates – and we think it should be consumed, not tipped down the sink.
“So, we’re taking a bold step today and asking customers to decide whether their milk is still good to drink.
“Generations before us have always used the sniff test, and I believe we can too.”
A sour aroma or curdled consistency is a sign the milk has been spoiled.
A spokeswoman for the Food Standards Agency said the “best before” label is fine with milk, as opposed to some other foods, and the sniff test should be based on common sense.
Milk is the third most wasted food and drink product in the UK, after potatoes and bread, with around 490 million pints wasted every year, according to Wrap. It also estimates 85 million pints of milk waste may be due to customers following “use by” labels despite research showing it can be used days after the date.
But while that's all good news for the planet, is it so good for our digestion - or are we in danger of making ourselves sick?
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Jenna Brown, an Environmental Health Officer and Food Safety inspector explains, "The Use by date is applied for safety reasons, and means it's safe for food to be frozen or consumed up until and including this date, but must not be eaten afterwards. Best before is applied for quality reasons, so provided there's no mould present, food is safe to be eaten after this date, - but beware that the quality may not be as good."
When it comes to milk, she says, "Overall, I think the move to scrap the use by dates on milk will be fantastic in helping to reduce food waste! The average family of 4 can save up to £730 a year by reducing their food waste so this will not only benefit the planet (milk is the third most wasted food in the UK, behind potatoes & bread) but also help families save money."
But what if you've lost your sense of smell- a key symptom of COVID-19 - or have a blocked nose?
"The milk will still be issued with a best before date so this will give a good indication to help people be sensible when using the 'sniff' test. I'm a huge advocate for reducing food waste, but ultimately, if in doubt, throw it out," Brown says.
Milk is unlikely to kill you even if it is on the turn - but there are some foods, explains Brown, where the Use By date is "critical for food safety. For high risk foods where a use by date is applied, for example meats, fish, and sandwiches/ salads on sale, the 'sniff' test is not appropriate," she warns.
"After the use by date, food which is unsafe to eat may look, smell and even taste fine, so it's important that use by dates are followed for all other food products.
Just remember you can extend the shelf life of food with a use by date by either cooking it or freezing it."
Food poisoning cases have dropped dramatically, due to better education, better refrigeration and packaging information - but, says Brown, when it comes to avoiding waste, "it's important to remember that if you freeze raw meat, rest assured you can defrost it, cook it and freeze the leftovers to reheat another day.
"This applies as a rule of thumb to all raw meat & fish - but there is often a misconception that this would be 'refreezing' which is not the case."
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