Shopping bag full of fresh produce

Reducing food waste by extending product life

3rd March 2015

To demonstrate the business case for preventing food waste by reviewing and extending product life, even by a small amount of just one day.

WRAP identified opportunities to make simple and safe changes throughout the supply chain and pass on more product life to consumers:

five recommendations to increase product life;
without compromising safety or quality;
without changes to products or packaging; and
with a clear business case, in terms of waste prevention, for change.


Extending product life: summary of opportunities for action and review

These are the products which were reviewed:

  • Sliced ham
  • Potatoes
  • Apples
  • Mince
  • Juice
  • Chilled pizza
  • ISB Bread
  • Chilled ready meals
  • Chicken breast
  • Salad
  • Milk


Some new slides are available as part of WRAP’s work on reducing food waste through extending product life.  They summarise the recommendations from the project report and provide information on next steps and actions



Key messages 

Extending the life of products image

  • Between 1.3mt and 2.6mt of food is wasted every year because the product life has expired. Households waste food because it has ‘not been used in time’. Retailers don’t sell food that has exceeded its use-by date.
  • Some 250,000 tonnes of food waste can be prevented by a one-day increase in product life. This includes food wasted by households and by the supply chain.
  • By preventing this volume of waste, UK shoppers look at a potential shared saving of up to £500 million. The direct business benefit to retailers is approaching £100 million in waste prevention alone: with increased sales through improved on-shelf availability another benefit retailers may enjoy
  • A one-day increase in product life is practical for a range of every day products in typical shopping baskets.
  • For 10 everyday products we have demonstrated potential ways that retailers and manufacturers can increase product life.  We believe this is repeatable more widely across grocery. 
  • The business case for retailers and manufacturers is based on savings from waste prevention together with increased sales associated with better availability of products on their shelves. Household food savings are also spent trading up thereby also benefitting the industry. 
  • WRAP will now work with industry to take forward these recommendations and explore other options to build upon the findings of today’s report.

Case studies

The Co-operative Food

Optimising product life will save The Co-operative Food £5m.

‘We have challenged all our suppliers to work with us and provide our stores with the maximum product life on all occasions. This has now been formalised into a standard working practice. For our part we are ensuring that all products are cleared from depots such that our convenience stores benefit from a longer selling time which in turn will benefit our shoppers’.

Alan Jackson
Consultant on waste, The Co-operative Food 

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Greenvale potato washing

Technical improvements through an innovative washing system help extend potato product life and reduce water usage.

‘The implementation of the cascade washing system has reduced ‘customer care’ complaints due to quality issues (e.g. damage, rot, out of specification, etc.) by 50%, and this figure continues to fall’.

Martin Lewis, Greenvale

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Ocado Chilled Distribution

‘Half life’ guarantee and minimum waste in fresh foods at Ocado Group.

‘All of Ocado’s fresh foods are guaranteed to have a minimum 50% of their total life remaining when they arrive at the customer’s doorstep’.  

Melinda Harris, Head of Food Technology, Ocado

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Sainsburys preventing food waste

Working with Sainsbury’s and Cranswick in a business experiment demonstrated that a small increase in product life prevents waste and improves availability.

‘These results are very significant for us, the ability to prevent waste by adding days to life is important and a very positive development, one we would like to extend to other products.’  

Stuart Lendrum
Head of Ethical Sourcing, Sainsbury’s 

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GS1 Batch Identification for fresh foods

Incorporating product life information in bar codes.

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Message from:
Dr. Richard Swannell, Director of Sustainable Food Systems at WRAP 

“The findings in our report are a real opportunity for industry. By implementing these simple recommendations, food manufacturers and retailers can make a big difference in the battle against food waste, without even having to change products and packaging. We estimate that shoppers could save upwards of £500m, and businesses could save £100m in waste prevention alone.

“We have a fantastic opportunity to take action here – we’ve identified the business case based on savings in the true cost of waste and the potential for increased sales from better availability. Today’s report is part of our continuing work to reduce food waste and we’re keen to work with industry on how best to act on this information.”


The purpose of this study is to demonstrate the business case for preventing food waste by reviewing and extending product life, even by a small amount of just one day. We identify and discuss the ways that this could be achieved, for a selected range of products, without compromising product safety or quality, or needing to make any changes to packaging or product formulations.


The purpose of this study is to demonstrate the business case for preventing food waste by reviewing and extending product life, even by a small amount of just one day. We identify and discuss the ways that this could be achieved, for a selected range of products, without compromising product safety or quality, or needing to make any changes to packaging or product formulations.

The evidence base for our work comprised sampling 23,299 products on retail shelves and 29 interviews with retailers, manufacturers and trade associations. We selected 10 products that feature in typical shopping baskets as the focus of this work. These products also have high levels of waste in the home and include short shelf life items that provide a good opportunity for examining the impact of a small increase in product life on food waste.

Product life expiry is a key reason for food waste. It is not possible for retailers to sell products after their ‘use by’ date and products that approach these dates are usually marked down in price for sale. If this is not effective, then products will enter the waste stream. Manufacturers have more flexibility, for example to re-work material, but orders that are rejected or cancelled close to their product life could lead to waste. Households also waste products because they have ‘not been used in time’; our research shows that this is the top reason given, which will include date code expiry. In this project we have estimated that some 1.3 – 2.6 million tonnes of food waste - with a value of between £3-6bn - arises in the supply chain and in the home because the product date code has expired. The majority of this waste arises in our homes; bearing this in mind, WRAP recommend that any extension of product life achieved should be passed on to the consumer wherever possible.

Key findings

This work has demonstrated that it is feasible to challenge existing product life setting protocols and potentially add one day to a wide range of products. A small increase in product life of one day is more likely to impact behaviour for products that have a short life, for example between 3-12 days, than for products that have, say, in excess of 30 days life, simply because it gives proportionately more time for a sale or for the product to be used in the home. The evidence also suggests that products with a short life are likely to lead to more waste than those with a longer life.

Using the results from our sample of 11 products, extrapolated across all food items, we have estimated that an increase of just one day could help prevent up to 0.2 million tonnes of household food waste, or just less than 5% of avoidable food waste in the UK, potentially giving a saving to consumers approaching £0.6bn on an annual basis. These estimates also indicate a direct business benefit for retailers of around £0.1bn in waste prevention alone; increased sales from improved on-shelf availability could be added to this potential benefit. Businesses might also benefit from households trading up to higher value products by using the savings they gain from wasting less food.

Conclusion and opportunities

The evidence from this project shows that there are opportunities to reduce food waste and its associated cost, by extending product life and that there are simple ways to do this without the need to make changes to packaging or product formulations. We have identified five key ways for retailers and manufacturers to act on this opportunity:

Challenging safety or quality buffers that are put in place, as these could be overly cautious. We found ‘buffers’, which vary in significance, are put in place between the product life that is actually specified for the product and the maximum life the product stays safe or retains its quality. For the products included on our study, there is the greatest opportunity to challenge the product life of potatoes, apples, mince and sliced ham in this way. These products are in the main retailer ‘own label’ ranges and thereby represent a significant opportunity for retailers to help consumers reduce their waste. We recognise that for certain products, product formulation and processing methods are significant factors that can also extend the maximum life.

Developing more standard approaches to open life setting. We found that open life guidance is widespread across many product categories (for example, ’once opened consume within x days’). Such guidance was applied for both quality and safety purposes, and the methodology used to specify the time period, for example, 2 days, varied. It is our recommendation that open life guidance is only used for products where food safety is a potential issue and not when the limiting factor is quality. We also advocate a more consistent approach to open life setting practices by retailers and manufacturers, to avoid any potential confusion and ensure that the consumer is given more consistent advice for comparable products.

Increasing the product life available for consumers through supply chain improvements. We found that shoppers are faced with a wide range of available life for the same product on shelf at a particular point in time. So the product life available on shelf at the time of purchase can range from short dated stock (with product life ending the same day on which it is bought) to product with the full length of life (delivered on the same day as it was produced). For example, for sliced ham our study showed that this difference can range from 1 day of available life to 23 days of available life, on shelf at the same time. The reasons why this can arise are complex and include the shelf replenishment process, including better discipline in stock rotation and adherence to mark down protocols. Retailers’ systems typically cannot distinguish the product life of products that are sold, because bar codes don’t record this information.

Benchmarking the delivery performance, with respect to remaining life, of products when they arrive at retailers’ depots in order to provide consumers with more available life more of the time. We found that receipt into retailer depot is a key performance measure, as typically a 75% ‘minimum life on receipt’ (MLOR) is regarded as an industry standard. This means that at least 75% of the life of the product should be available to retailers, which they then pass on to consumers less the time spent in their replenishment systems. In supermarkets we found that many retailers are now requiring an 85% standard, which will help provide consumers with increased life though this new standard is by no means universal. We also found that performance against the 75% standard varied from the low 40s to the high 90s percentages. This suggests there is scope to provide consumers with more available life more regularly by bringing the lowest performance up to the standards achieved by the best performance. However, we are not advocating that deliveries which don’t meet the MLOR requirement are rejected, rather that daily negotiations take place backed up by collaborative effort to improve performance. We also found the 75% standard varies by retail channel. In the convenience sector, particularly in relation to symbol groups (independent retailers and outlets part of a branded group, for example, a franchise), which have seen growth over the recent past, the standard is typically lower and the performance more varied. This means that consumers, on average, will have less available life when buying through convenience stores. This may be acceptable given the nature of convenience shopping, but if the sector keeps on growing then there may be an adverse consequence for household food waste levels.

Reducing inconsistency in the use of date codes, which causes confusion among consumers and can lead to poor decision making in the home. We found that ‘display until’ codes are still in use (around 12% of the products surveyed) and some examples were found on all but one of the products studied, although this study and our previous research shows that the industry has made considerable progress in moving away from using this type of coding. No evidence of ‘display until’ codes was found in two of the retailers surveyed, whilst for a number of other retailers evidence was only found on a small number of the products studied. Of the products surveyed, potatoes, juice, milk and sliced ham are products where ‘display until’ dates are still prevalent, in terms of the number of examples recorded. However these instances were recorded in only a small proportion of the retailers included in the survey. WRAP recommends the use of either ‘use-by’ or ‘best-before’ dates as the only date codes that appear on packs, in order to help prevent household food waste and enable consumers to make the most of any increased product life.

Next steps – encouraging action 

Our aim is to encourage retailers and manufacturers to use the opportunities we have identified to review and challenge how product life is set with a view to increasing life by at least one day where it is safe to do so and without compromising quality. We therefore recommend the following, to take action towards the five areas of opportunity identified:

Retailers for own label and manufacturers of brands should review the ‘total life’ of all products with a focus on short shelf life or high waste products with a view to challenging the ‘buffers’ that are in place in order to find opportunities to compress these and extend product life;

There should be a consistent approach across own label and brands on setting both total life and open life for comparable products;

  • Retailers and manufacturers should challenge current ‘open life’ guidance that is on pack, in terms of length (that is number of days) and also whether it is needed at all from a food safety point of view;
  • Practice shows that an 85% minimum life on receipt (MLOR) at retailers’ depots is achievable and that more retailers are requiring this standard.  A collaborative approach should be adopted between retailers and suppliers to improve performance, including formal recognition of the need for daily negotiations.  The purpose of this being to provide consumers with more of the product life and ensure that waste in the supply chain is not increased as a result of this action;
  • Retailers’ protocols for stock rotation, which can lead to large date ranges on shelves, and mark down policy, which could prevent food waste, should be reviewed in light of this research;
  • Manufacturers should examine ways of reducing processing times through the use of lean manufacturing principles to investigate the potential for giving consumers increased available life; for protein products improved process hygiene could also play a key role; and  
  • All ‘display until’ dates should be removed from packs leaving only’ use by’ or ‘best before’ dates and open life guidance, where appropriate; further, ‘use by’ dates should be confined to products where there is a safety risk and the industry should continue to work on providing improved storage, freezing and defrosting guidance on pack, accompanied by point of sale information in-store.

In the longer term, there are further opportunities, which may involve changes to products or packaging, such as the potential to test out the efficacy of new bar code systems that can record product life, and new technology like the use of thermo-chromic inks being used to help encourage consumers store products at the correct temperatures (for example in the fridge).

Retailers and manufacturers can start this review process by benchmarking their own product life performance. WRAP would be pleased to facilitate such discussions on available life and open life using unpublished data from this study. We will also explore the potential to establish a cross industry working group to encourage and facilitate a consistent approach to product life and open life setting to take forward the recommendations in this research.

WRAP will also continue to monitor and report on date code labels, on pack guidance and open life guidance through the forthcoming Retailer Survey in 2015.