The thing is that while I accept that confusion over food exists, I don’t think it’s caused by a plethora of sell-by and use-by dates. Most food confusion can surely be summarised thus: why is nice stuff fattening? Does celery really contain fewer calories than it takes to digest and is that still true when it’s wearing its own weight in hummus? And of course, are crisp breads materially different in any way from small, brittle shelves?
Yet Caroline Spelman announced yesterday that the government wants food manufacturers to scrap sell-by dates. £12 billion of edible food gets chucked away in the UK every year because, they believe, customers are bewildered by the difference between a sell-by or display-until date and a use-by date. This surely sells customers, many of whom are not idiots and buy groceries and understand money and everything, rather short.
It seems only fair at this point to admit that I come from a long line of label-disregarders. When my grandmother died (astonishingly, not of food poisoning), we dug through strata of food in her kitchen cupboards. We found a packet of jelly cubes which had a competition on the back. The closing date for entries was the year before my thirty-something brother was born. We thought about making it, just to see if it ate through the jelly mould (a word rarely used more appropriately), but chickened out before the kettle had boiled.
And my mum thinks that putting something in the freezer is the same thing as putting it in stasis: only to be used or thrown out if a power failure causes the freezer to defrost. And the only thing she keeps in the fridge is cheese that hums with low-grade radioactivity. If a pregnant woman could safely eat a cheese, my clan won’t even buy it.
Caroline Spelman kept saying how confusing our fridges are but, at the risk of sounding smug, I would describe my fridge as a veritable pageant of clarity. Of clarity, beer, and inexplicable crumbs. I find it hard to believe that there are people who can’t understand that the sell-by date applies to the supermarket, and not to them. Unless you re-sell food, why would you even look at the sell-by date once you’ve bought it? You know that it’s been sold – you bought it. And who genuinely thinks that display-until means the same thing as use-by? People who see their fridge as a display unit?
Surely most of us can tell when the majority of food has passed its best-before date: biscuits go soft, cakes go hard, cheese grows a beard and walks to the bin on its own.