In the FSA’s 2011 ‘Food and You’ survey of public understanding of food hygiene, safety and nutrition, 75% of respondents stated that they use ‘use-by dates’ when shopping. At the same time, only 25% replied that they use these labels to decide whether food is safe or not.
Inevitably, the latter statistic will be used to highlight public ignorance, misunderstanding and confusion about food safety and labelling. And it may well be the case that such confusion exists. What is more interesting is where these labels are used and how this reflects the development of the labelling system. Reflecting on the historical development of the labelling system over the last 40 years reveals how the system has evolved and how consumer behaviour has been invoked and problematised. This post is a first attempt, prompted by the Food and You study, to work through some of this history.
In the decades following the end of rationing and the relaxation of post-war austerity measures, significant changes took place in the social, economic, technical and spatial networks of food. More women went to work, households began to have more disposable income, and innovations in food processing and storage began to disseminate more widely. In the 1960s, prompted by a rapid rise in the availability and purchasing of pre-packaged food, consumer groups called for some form of labelling that would allow shoppers (typically the housewife) to assess freshness. In 1964 the Food Standards Committee, the forerunner of the current regulatory body, dismissed these calls as impractical and as potentially contributing to a false sense of security (Turner 1995).
Consumer groups continued to press and retailers such as Marks and Spencer gradually began to open up their internal stock control measures to the consumer. Their systems spread, initially in the form of ‘sell-by’ dates, the first date marking on foods that was easily interpreted by consumers, and which remains ubiquitous in popular discussions of date labelling. In light of industry efforts, the Food Standards Committee revisited the question of date labelling in 1972, deciding that the impracticalities of eight years previous could now be surmounted, and that ‘open date marking’ should become a legal requirement. To investigate the challenges of introducing the labels, a ‘Steering Group on Food Freshness’ was established, chaired by the ex-MP for West Belfast, and founder member of the Housewive’s Trust, Patricia McLaughlin. Mrs McLaughlin declared that the purpose of the steering group would be to focus on the positive aspects of labelling, to investigate in terms of freshness of food, rather than “in terms of avoiding a small proportion of stale food being sold” (in Collins 1973).
The report of the steering group, completed in 1974, forms the basis for subsequent regulation of perishable foods. It separates foods into four groups on the basis of their shelf-life, of which greatest concern is for those with very short shelf-lives, such as sausages, pies, soft cheese and cream cakes. Its reference to the potentially ‘serious adverse effects’ of these products is the only time that it concerns itself with food safety. It was an ambitious attempt to regulate a complex food production system, rather than an individual product or producer. As Alan Turner, former chairman of the Food Labelling panel of the UK Food and Drink Federation described in a 1995 retrospective:
“Neither before nor since have I know so much paper circulated on a single food labelling topic…Open date marking effectively imposed a discipline right along the food chain, requiring the interconnections to be clarified and strengthened since the declared date mark set an end deadline which had to be met and which had legal backing” (Turner 1995: 28)
The emphasis of the system was on ensuring that the consumer purchases food in as fresh a condition as possible, while avoiding negative consequences for retailers. For example, it highlights industry worries about bread, whose staleness (or freshness) can be relatively easily determined and is subjected to more ‘rummaging’ than other products. As the British Food Journal described in a 1971 editorial, discussion of date labelling and rummaging had previously prompted concern:
“The main objection by the trade against actual date stamping is that shoppers will naturally take the freshest, according to the date, leaving the later packets, with resultant losses.”
From their start in concerns about freshness, date marking took on its emphasis on food safety in the late 1970s and 1980s (as for example in attempts at harmonisation in Directive 79/112/EC) . The date marking system as it exists today is a hotchpotch of systems aimed at preventing the sale of stale food and efforts to ensure the safety of food, represented in the form of ‘best-before’ and ‘use-by’ dates respectively. Given its origins and evolution, it is perhaps no surprise that consumers are more likely to use dates while shopping than while assessing the safety of food, and that there continues to be the lack of clarity in the application of labels reflected in last year’s FSA consultation.
Turner, A. (1995) “Prepacked Food Labelling: Past, Present and Future” British Food Journal