Sunday, 24 August 2008

Waste not: want not
I remember the 1970s as a period of considerable change. For half the decade I was working in the food industry and witnessed the introduction of bar codes and best-before marking of foods. I think it was also around this time that the Financial Times effectively destroyed the British Billion. It is easy to upset an American by pointing out that whilst his ego may be bigger than ours, his gallon and ton are smaller. In truth so is his billion. A British billion is one million million ie: the US billion is only really one thousand million - 1,000,000,000. But somewhere around this time the FT decided to use the US billion and so it has been adopted by everyone.
The introduction of bar codes and best-before dates have had a greater impact of British consumers. At the time I had a letter published in The Grocer pointing out the potential pitfalls of not marking individual products with prices and relying on computerised tills to charge the correct price. We always check our supermarket bills and this year two out of every three have been incorrect. If this is extrapolated over the country there should be considerable cause for concern. Because we shop frequently our bills are generally small but it is not uncommon to see people spending hundreds of pounds on a Friday evening and not even taking the receipt with them. Given this attitude by consumers it is not surprising that last year Tesco was the first UK retailer to report profits of over £2 billion (US)
Whilst the four largest supermarket chains amassed profits approaching £4 billion (US) last year UK consumers managed to discard more than twice that value of food unnecessarily. Yes, we- no, you - discarded 3.6million tons of food - 60% of which was untouched and ten percent of which was still in date. This represented 18% of all the food you purchased. Families with children discarded 27% of the food they purchased. When I was a child we had a larder and threw away no food. We now have a refrigerator in which we are encouraged by manufacturers to store such things as jam, pickles and mustard. Surely pickling is a method of preservation? In 1976 Green Giant decided to introduce best before dates on canned sweetcorn. To my request for guidance on the appropriate period to declare I was advised by those in the know in USA that there would be no noticeable deterioration of the product in less than six years. This was unacceptable to the marketing department in UK "the consumer will be suspicious of dates so far out" Consequently the period applied was shortened to two years. Best before dates are even printed on honey jars and honey cannot go off!
Are you convinced that change is always for the better?

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