Potential changes to fresh food packaging regulations in the UK – what can supply chains do now to prepare?

Carly Duckett provides an overview of potential changes to fresh food packaging regulations, summarising what those regulations would mean for organisations in the food and drink sector and what steps those organisations should be taking now in preparation.  

4 March 2024

Fresh fruit in supermarket

If you’re a nighttime supermarket shopper, you might have noticed that the unpackaged fruit and vegetable shelves are empty at the end of the day, but there’s often plenty of packaged fruit and vegetables left. 

It’s something I’ve been aware of over the last few months and it seems to be because climate conscious shoppers are opting for produce without (or with limited) plastic packaging. This has a direct impact on the amount of plastic waste we’re producing, and given no packing means no expiry dates listed, an indirect impact on our food waste.

Plastic packaging 

In France, there has been a ban on plastic packaging for around 30 types of fruit and vegetables since January 2022. The French Government estimated that these changes would result in one billion fewer single-use plastics being used every year, which supports its aim to phase out all single-use plastic packaging by 2040.

It’s been reported that the UK government is considering a similar move which would force retailers to sell more loose, unpackaged products, which should be popular among consumers trying to limit their use of single-use plastics. 

Of course, some products need to be packaged due to their perishability – it’s difficult to envisage loose raspberries surviving any time in transit from farm to market – but a move away from single-use plastic will force supermarkets and other stakeholders in the supply chain to consider alternative packaging solutions. 

The UK government has faced some criticism for suggesting that these changes be made at relatively short notice, as this would inevitably impact businesses that are tied into minimum volume commitments or commercial contracts that are not due to expire until after any changes in the regulatory landscape. 

It’s important that all stakeholders in the supply chain, including farmers; packaging and labelling manufacturers; and supermarkets consider the impact that these changes could have, so that they are well prepared should regulatory changes come into force. 

Use by dates

A move away from plastic packaging would make it more difficult for companies to mark “use-by” and “best before” dates on fresh produce, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While we can usually tell when fresh food has gone off without checking the use-by date, something about the packaging telling you the product is past its best discourages people from eating good food, so it ends up in the bin. 

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimated that UK households generated 6.4m tonnes of food and drink waste in 2021/22. WRAP has also reported that the average household (of four people) throws away approximately £1,000 of good food per year – a staggering statistic given the recent inflation of food prices.

In an attempt to combat that problem, in 2022 Sainsburys announced that it would stop using best before dates on a range of fresh produce and dairy products with the intention to discourage customers from throwing produce away solely based on the date on the packaging. 

Supermarkets have been able to do this of their own accord because there’s no obligation for retailers to have a use-by date on unpeeled fresh fruit and vegetables. You’re certainly unlikely to find one on any fresh fruit or vegetables that you buy at a local market. 

What can I do now to prepare for regulatory change?

While reducing plastic packaging and removing use-by date labelling on products can reduce costs; align with your environmental, social, and governance strategies; and improve sales with climate-conscious shoppers, there are other factors to consider. Businesses must be mindful of their ongoing contractual obligations and their food safety labelling requirements, which remain of paramount importance for any food product business. 

Farmers, packaging producers, and food retailers must now review their commercial contracts and seek legal advice on their packaging and labelling obligations in light of these potential regulatory changes on the horizon. 

Seeking legal advice at this stage will help to ensure that stakeholders across food industry supply chains are exploring their options and re-negotiating contracts in good time so that they are well prepared for any regulatory changes, which could come into effect at relatively short notice.