Past its sell-by date?

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The distinctive yellow “reduced” labels lure canny shoppers like cruising sharks at the first scent of blood.

We all like a bargain, but can we bank on getting quite so many, now that sell-by dates are past their sell-by?

They were finally scrapped this week by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to reduce food waste, although many products on sale today still have a sell-by or display until date, along with the use by or best before date.

Confused? That’s part of the problem, say consumer champions, but one thing remains clear – the tell tale yellow reduction labels on many products nearing sell-by or use by date is like a green light to bargain hungry shoppers.

And they fear the loss of the traditional indicator may mean a far shorter run-in to discount deals on food.

Other local shoppers reckon it could also mean short shelf life big name brands will be in shorter supply at discount outlets often used as clearance houses.

Fylde coast shoppers are fairly frugal, as the plethora of discount chains opening in even the posher parts of local towns proves.

And our own snap survey also shows that most shoppers know the difference between sell-by or display until and use by or best before dates.

New rules, introduced yesterday, mean all food and drink must be labelled with one date only, either a best before or use by date.

That’s with one significant exception – supermarket own brands – although manufacturers are being asked to fall in line.

Campaigners claim it will stop manufacturers misleading customers into thinking food is off. An estimated five million tons of perfectly good grub is dumped every year.

The average family bins £680 of food each year, in the mistaken belief it will have gone off. Specialist campaigners claim at least 60 per cent of the food chucked away is safe to eat. A survey by Morrisons revealed 55 per cent of shoppers threw away food past its best before date, although still fit to eat. Several celebrity chefs have also lobbied on the issue.

The change means tinned and dry goods will carry a best before date to indicate when they will no longer be at their best, but still safe to eat. Use by labels will only go on foods which might otherwise perish, or be unsafe to eat after a given date, such as ready meals, soft cheese, meat, fish, eggs, and some dairy products.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman says it ends confusion in the aisles. “We want to make it clear once and for all when food is good and safe to eat. The simpler guide will help households cut down on the £12bn worth of good food that ends up in the bin.”

But have we “bin” had? asks Colin Jarman, a Blackpool father of three, who prides himself on his bargain-hunting skills. He says he would find it “hard to afford” to feed his kids without discounts on sell-by food.

“I rely on them,” he explains. “When you’ve got kids aged seven, four and three, you know how much they eat, and how much it can cost, and it’s getting harder all the time, because food prices keep going up.

“I’ve just checked out the reduced range at Asda and we’re off to Tesco and may visit Morrisons. We never do a one stop shop. We’re also making more of an effort not to waste stuff, either, as I reckon we throw away a third of what we buy. If you look at that right across the country it’s morally obscene when you’ve got people who are homeless.

“There’s nothing wrong with most food after its use by or best before date, but this new system means supermarkets may be less inclined to offer reductions.”

Blackpool BA Hons drama student Holly McHugh lives on £45 a week via her student loan. “It’s going to be really tough when I set up alone next year,”she adds. “I live with a family and there are eight of us in the house, and we all pretty much get by on discount food. Money wouldn’t go far without it. It’s not just students, but young mums and dads, people on benefits, and older people, pensioners, who could be hit by this.”

Graphic design students Rachel Smith, 16, Andy James, 17 and Ryan Thorpe, 17, who bargain hunt at Asda, Morrisons and Tesco, agree. “It’s students who miss out because they buy reduced stuff all the time,” says Ryan.

Nicky Arton, of Blackpool, says B&M, Home Bargains and Morrisons top her league. “I’m not a shop or brand snob. I’m vegetarian so don’t get meat, but I buy tinned foods, or freeze fresh foods. Buying what you need is part of the breakthrough, too.”

Which? director Richard Lloyd says: “Manufacturers should only use the date marks consumers need – ‘use by’ for safety, and ‘best before’ for quality. We also need to end the anomaly which labels eggs as best before instead of use by. They could be unsafe if eaten after a certain time; there must be no room for confusion.”