German food labels are past their best-before dates

Photo: Women of Green
photo: Women of Green

Statistics tell us that 80% of consumers do not know the difference between best-before, sell-by, and use-by dates – and this is adding to the mountain of waste in Europe as more food waste is produced unnecessarily. So Germany is doing something to be rid the confusion – ripping off these best-before date labels. Living in Hong Kong, you are probably aware of the issue as it has been a hot topic for debate in the past few years.

To put things into perspective, according to Feeding Hong Kong, one third of the solid waste in Hong Kong is food. every day, 3,200 tonnes of food are sent to landfills which is as heavy as 120 double decker buses. The pressing issue being that by 2018, the remaining three landfills in Hong Kong will reach their limits.

There is up to 88 million tonnes of food waste in Europe every year, as the European Commission shows; and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said that 30-50% of food in supermarkets is thrown away, which is often due to misunderstanding of labels.

The difference between best-before and use-by dates


Essentially, the best-before dates refers to quality while the use-by dates refer to food safety.

The ancestor of best-before dates are in fact sell-by dates, which indicates the date by which the sellers can display and sell produce that still have a respectable quality. This sell-by date was introduced by Marks and Spencer in the 1970s, but as food safety concerns heightened with increased processed food sold in the 1980s, the sell-by dates became a food safety marker. Household consumers, who do not really understand the concept of sell-by dates, or how long certain food can be kept, mistook the purpose of said labels and threw away food even before it expires.


Use-by dates, on the other hand, are a much stricter sort of standard. Food with this label can only be eaten up to this date and not after, even if it seems completely fine to eat. These dates are reserved for highly perishable food such as meat and fish, and it would be dangerous to consume them after their use-by dates.













What Germany is doing about it

Out of the 100,000,000 tonnes of food waste produced in Europe per year, Germans contribute 81 kg per person per year. The German government’s endeavor to reduce food waste started years ago with education on the serious impact of such behaviour, and with encouragement for consumers to buy smaller packs of food – sadly these efforts seem to go to waste as well. 

Therefore, the German government is proposing to cancel the usage of best-before date and use-by date labels for food that can be kept for longer periods of time, such as sugar, salt, vinegar, rice, and pasta; and will entrust the consumers to evaluate whether to consume the produce or not based on the date of production. While easily perishable food such as meat and dairy products will keep their use-by date labels.


Another accompanying policy is to promote the use of intelligent packaging, which employs the usage of colour-changing strips or of temperature-sensitive chips to show the freshness of produces. However, this technology is still in experiment, the Germans will have to wait for this new technology to stabilize and be tested before it can be widely used and trusted.


Hong Kong’s food waste and food labels

Currently the Hong Kong government has regulations that concern the language of food labels, the wording of the ingredients list, false labeling, and the format to display best-before and use-by date labels. Yet the rules for the latter seem to be confusing if not confused:

“The “best before” (此日期前最佳) date shall be indicated by the words “best before” in English lettering and “此日期前最佳” in Chinese characters followed by the date up to and including which the food can reasonably be expected to retain its specific properties if properly stored, and a statement of any storage conditions which need to be observed if the food is to retain its specific properties until that date. The “use by” (此日期或之前食用) date shall be indicated by the words “use by” in English lettering and “此日期或之前食用” in Chinese characters followed by the date up to and including which the food, if properly stored, is recommended for use, and a statement of any storage conditions which need to be observed if the food is to retain its quality attributes until that date. You may wish to take reference from Paragraph 4 of Schedule 3 to the Food and Drugs (Composition and Labelling) Regulations (Cap. 132W) for further details.”

The government seems to have a different definition for “best before” and “use by” dates from the international standard – under which the “use by” dates dictates that after such dates, the consumers should not consume the food at the risk of their health; and their definition of the former seems to be entangled with that of the latter.

Hong Kong merchants and consumers thus understandably confuse the two and throw away food even when it is still perfectly fine to consume it.

Food waste being a hot topic in Hong Kong, there are evidently NGOs dedicated to the cause. Feeding Hong Kong is one of the main local NGOs that promote the reduction of food waste. They are the only food bank in Hong Kong dedicated to giving out surplus food for those in need, and promotes the education of Hong Kong people in this aspect, such as the difference between the two labels mentioned here.







Another local NGO would be Food for Good, which promotes a healthy and environmentally-friendly eating culture in Hong Kong by mainly cooperating with schools and local communities by setting up gardens by food wastage composting and community kitchens which redistribute surplus food.








International joint efforts against food wastage

Two main anti-food waste efforts include the Think.Eat.Save campaign and the Every Crumb Counts Joint Food Wastage Declaration. Both initiatives unite NGOs, the food industry, as well as the UN and the EU.

 The Think.Eat.Save campaign promotes the Think.Eat.Save. Student Challenge and the UN Secretary’s Zero Hunger Challenge, in addition to publishing reports and educating the public on the issue of food wastage. The Think.Eat.Save Student Challenge asks for student in high schools and in universities around the world to find out the amount of food wasted in their campuses and to take action to reduce it. The Zero Hunger Challenge is a five-point food security campaign that encourage the reduction of food wastage and therefore solve the problem of unequal distribution of food, protecting the fundamental right to food for all.








While the Every Crumb Counts Joint Food Wastage Declaration is a European effort to engage the European Commission, the European Parliament, NGOs and the industry to work towards preventing and reducing edible food waste. It aims to have a sustainable economy in the EU that  as well as to support other national, European and global initiatives in this area.







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