The European Union is poised to scrap compulsory 'best before' labels on coffee, rice, dry pasta, hard cheeses, jams and pickles to help reduce the estimated 100 million tons of food wasted across Europe each year.
Officials of the European Commission will table proposals next month allowing national governments to extend the list of foods that do not require 'best before' dates, in a move which they believe will mean 15 million tons less food a year is discarded by households wrongly worried that it is no longer fit for consumption.
The decision follows a call by Sharon Dijksma, the Dutch agriculture minister, for the EU to put its "first focus" on a campaign to reduce the food waste estimated to cost families across Europe up to £500 a year.
"We would like to start with products you have in your home for a long time, like pasta, rice or coffee," she told a meeting of EU farm ministers and officials in Brussels. "The labels have nothing to do with safety but with quality," she said. "We think citizens can make sure themselves if, for instance, rice is still usable."
Consumers can tell for themselves when food has gone off and that minor changes such as "bit of a change in colour" should not lead to foodstuffs being thrown away, she said.
EU legislation on labelling currently requires all food to carry a 'best before' date, whether the products are potentially dangerous, such as raw meat or eggs, or have a long shelf life, like frozen, dried and tinned goods.
Long-life foods, such Parmesan cheese, rice or coffee, might change colour, lose texture or have deterioration in flavour but remain edible and safe unless obviously otherwise, officials say. "People aren't stupid and smarter labelling can advise consumers to better understand when stable foods need to be thrown away, or not," said a diplomat.
A letter to the agriculture council, backed by the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg, said: "Consumers often throw food away unnecessarily because of confusion about the meaning of the 'best before' date."
Earlier this year vinegar - a preservative and flavouring - became one of the first widely-used foods to be exempted from the EU's 'best before' legislation.
The Government has estimated that unnecessarily discarded food costs the average British household £480 a year, rising to £680 for a family with children.
Although household food waste has fallen by 13 per cent across Britain since 2006, families still discard 7.2 million tons of food and drink every year, most of which could have been eaten.
Despite calls from the Government for a change in use-by labelling three years ago, Britain has not yet backed the EU proposals and has instead urged a full investigation into safety aspects of the change.
A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "We are fully engaged with discussions on 'best before' dates and are open to the possibility of exempting some foods from the mandatory requirement of giving a 'best before' date, such as foods with a high acid content.
"However, we believe the connection between these labels and food waste requires further investigation to ensure the removal of date marks doesn't have the opposite effect to that intended."