The East of England Co-op hopes the move will cut food waste across its 125 stores.
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The “expiration” dates on food can be extremely confusing. The wording for these dates can be varied and vague—things like use by, best if used by and sell by—and even then, the implications of what happens once an item passes this date can be unclear—will it just not taste as fresh or can it be literally unsafe to consume? The stakes may be higher than it seems: Food waste has become a major issue across the globe, and the confusion surrounding these dates can cause plenty of edible food to be thrown out. So a UK grocery chain is taking a step being call a first for a major British retailer: The 125-location East of England Co-op will be selling foods past their “Best Before” date at a slashed price in an effort to cut waste.

In the UK, grocers use two distinctions for perishable foods: Use By and Best Before. Use By dates designate products that might become harmful once expired. But Best Before dates represent a quality distinction determined by the manufacturer. Legally, grocers can still sell Best Before foods after their labeled dates, so earlier this year, the East of England Co-op began piloting a program of selling these items for just 10 pence or under 15 cents. The grocer’s cheekily-named “Co-op Guide to Dating” proved extremely successful. “During our trial we found our 10p items went within hours of being reduced, sometimes quicker,” Roger Grosvenor, joint chief executive at the East of England Co-op, told the East Anglian Daily Times. “The vast majority of our customers understand they are fine to eat and appreciate the opportunity to make a significant saving on some of their favorite products.”

After that initial three month test in 14 stores, the company is now rolling out the program system-wide. “This is not a money making exercise, but a sensible move to reduce food waste and keep edible food in the food chain,” Grosvenor continued. “By selling perfectly edible food we can save 50,000 plus items every year which would otherwise have gone to waste.” For the record, the Daily Times reports that restrictions do exists on how long Best Before item can continue to be sold: Food Standard Agency guidelines state that the maximum a food should be sold past its Best Before date is one month; however, the paper also states that this food won’t be accepted by food banks, making the Co-op’s program potentially these items best chance for survival.

Tackling food waste has been as big of an issue across the pond as it’s been here in the States. Just last week, FoodNavigator-USA reported that UK food regulators issued new voluntary guidance on food labeling specifically aimed at reducing unnecessary waste. Suggested changes included adding logos to help specify proper storage and switching from Use By dates to Best Before dates where applicable.