Simple supermarket reform could save you $2500 in grocery costs every year

Supermarkets are reporting big profits while consumers dig deeper to buy essential groceries. Yet there is a simple reform – adopted in other countries – that could ease the pain of grocery shopping, though it will dent supermarket profits.

Public policy think tank The Australia Institute says supermarkets are making $1.2 billion a year in profit – due to food waste. It says Australians wasted 7.6 million tonnes of food each year – about 300kg per person. About 70 per cent of what we throw out is edible.

The 2021 National Food Waste Strategy Feasibility Study found the average Australian household wasted between $2000 and $2500 worth of food each year and the overall cost to households in 2018-19 was $19.3 billion.

A chief culprit? Best-before dates.

A discussion paper released last month by The Australia Institute details how reform of best-before dates would benefit consumers and why supermarkets had a strong incentive to resist policy changes.

Best-before and use-by dates

Australia has long followed a labelling system that includes both best-before and use-by dates.

The NSW Food Authority says a best-before date means the food is still safe to eat – and can be legally sold – after that date as long as it is not damaged, deteriorated or perished. It simply indicates that the food may lose some of its quality after that date.

Common best-before foods include canned foods, cereals, biscuits, sauces, chocolate, sugar, flour and frozen foods.

A use-by date means the food must be eaten or thrown away by the date. “After that date, foods may be unsafe to eat even if they look fine because the nutrients in the food may become unstable or a build-up of bacteria may occur,” the authority says.

It is illegal to sell foods after a use-by date. Common use-by foods include milk, sliced ham and shaved meats.

The UK has removed best-before dates on thousands of fresh food products.

Major supermarket chain Sainsbury’s adopted a ‘no date helps reduce waste’ approach for a range of items, including apples, bananas, potatoes, cucumbers and broccoli. It’s estimated that initiative has reduced waste by 50,000 tonnes annually.

Consumers support change

Australia Institute polling showed strong support for similar policies here to reduce food waste, including relaxed ‘cosmetic’ standards for farmers (what a food item looks like) and kerbside collection of food waste in addition to labelling reform.

Senior economist Matt Grudnoff says consumers are rightly concerned about food waste and the slow pace of change.

“It’s high time the government acted on food labelling reform and the other recommendations of the National Food Waste Strategy Feasibility Study,” he said.

“It proposed removing best-before dates from products that do not need them, scrapping sell-by and display-until dates, and extending allowable use-by dates for long-life products.”

He said the proposed changes were not about selling unsafe food but relaxing our strict food safety standards.

Research by the institute found that Coles and Woolworths accounted for at least 70 per cent of packaged grocery sales and 50 per cent of fresh produce sales. Reform there would have a huge impact.

The institute research found about 10 per cent of food waste was related to the cosmetic standards retailers enforced on farmers.

Farmers say perfectly edible food is rejected by supermarkets due to appearance and they often did not speak up for fear of losing business.

“There is so much food waste at the farmers’ end,” Mr Grudnoff told the ABC.

“They are required to only sell products that meet certain cosmetic standards … they’re the ones who have to carry the costs.”

An Australia Institute poll of more than 1000 participants showed 78 per cent were in favour of labelling reform and 72 per cent favoured relaxed cosmetic standards.

What the supermarkets say

Woolworths says it works hard to reduce food waste and is not opposed to best-by reforms.

“As a retailer, extending the shelf life of products we sell can actually help us,” a spokesperson said. “We are on the steering committee of a cross-industry research group working to improve date labelling and storage advice to reduce food waste.

“We support any sensible date label reforms to reduce food waste and increase shelf life.”

Coles, however, says changing use-by labelling practices would require an industry-wide approach and consumer education.

“While this is something that could be considered, a change like this would require a planned and coordinated customer education, regulatory consultation with relevant food waste initiatives, and industry approval,” a Coles spokesperson said.

Many experts argue the lack of competition in the Australian market remains the biggest challenge to labelling reform. Concentration in domestic markets has steadily increased over the years, limiting consumer options and giving supermarkets more clout to resist government pressures.

Do you strictly adhere to best-before dates or do you make your own assessment? Do you throw out a lot of produce each year? Share your experience in the comments section below.

Also read: Health alarm over slack supermarket labelling

Janelle Ward
Janelle Ward
Energetic and skilled editor and writer with expert knowledge of retirement, retirement income, superannuation and retirement planning.


  1. Best by dates seem a waste when just looking at the food it’s obvious if it is useable or not. Have no idea when the best by dates even appeared. Use by dates, however should be followed. It’s not a hard thing to work out.

  2. I have personally experienced frustrating ‘use by’ dates, I buy kumatos, a type of black tomato, I know from experience they last longer than other varieties. I once tried to buy a couple of packages that had been reduced, they were perfectly okay but the use by date was the day before, the clerk said they were no longer for sale and would be discarded, such a waste. There is no health risk for this sort of vegetable, better to give them away than throw them away.

  3. I find it difficult to understand why people need to have dates written on foodstuff.
    Use our senses like sight, smell and taste to determine edibility. We are so dumbed down by industry and the media that we’ve lost the ability to do things for ourselves!

    • I totally agree with you clancambo. We were given a number of senses (yes, I KNOW that commonsense became extinct many years ago), to protect us for foods that are not safe to eat. I know of someone who continued to eat ham even though it tasted ‘awful’ simply because the ‘use by’ date had not been reached! As a result that person was hospitalised with severe food poisoning! Whereas if the sense of taste INSTEAD of the date stamped on the package had been trusted the food wouldn’t have been eaten at all, the awful taste of the ham would have caused it to have been binned!

  4. When we shop, we look for the reduced items, ie, those near to the date. Even those with “use by” dates are still edible after the date – if you use common sense, Oh, I forgot: common sense is not that common these days.

  5. I would echo Nanday’s experience, I picked up the last aged blue cheese at Woolies but I was prevented from buying it because it had reached its use by date. I pointed out that the cheese was probably 18 months old already so what the heck?

    We need to guard against supermarkets profiteering from any changes. Already Woolies are selling at premium prices fruit that they would otherwise have rejected due to small size. Kids bananas at premium prices and now kids mandarins in thick plastic bags at $7.00 kg or double the price of normal sized fruit. How cynical to be appealing through kids to sell previously rejected food at double the price.

  6. Sounds like Coles is reluctant to lose some profit by changing the labelling Response carefully worded and crafted. Wed tend to use products by use by date, unless it hads been in the freezer for a while. I get concerned when sauages in a pack cause ‘bloating’ of the cellophane wrapping. Suggests gas creation and there are certain nasty olrganisms you don’t want to eat that cause gas,, and also some bacon we bought from Coles, after about 7-8 days, it develoed patches of red pasty like material, similar to a bacterial culture, and red made me think of an organism called Serratia marcescens, which is a pathogen. It went straight into the bin

  7. Being an ex-serviceman, I can tell you that these dates are a waste of time I left the service in 1983 and they were still using ration packs that were made up back in the time of WWII and they were as good then as the day they were made up.

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