Food Expiration Dates

Use By and Best Before Dates

Over recent weeks and years, we have seen confusion over use by and best before dates. So much so that 1 supermarket has removed Use by dates from 90% of its own brand milk. The supermarket had identified that 490,000,000 (490 million) pints were being wasted every year. They have replaced the use by with a best before date.

This month we take a look at Use by and Best Before dates to try to explain these terms better and provide some history as to when these started to appear on our foods.

What’s the Difference Between Use by and Best Before Dates?

It is important to understand the difference between use by and best before dates in order to ensure that you keep yourself and your family safe when it comes to the food that is being consumed.

Use by Dates:

Use by dates are there for safety

These dates are provided as a matter of importance, to ensure that food is not eaten after this date. Even if it looks or smells ok once food has gone past the Use By date you must not eat it and should dispose of it.

A Use By date, of course, may be superseded by the way that the food has been stored. Should the food not have been kept in line with the storage instructions on the packet, it may go off earlier that the use by date dictates. Always take heed of instructions on packages.

When it comes to Use By dates, you have up to midnight of that date to consume the food, as soon as midnight ticks around on that day, uneaten food must be discarded.

Prior to midnight, you could cook food, which is about to pass the use by date, this will give you more time to consume the food, however it is important that you then cool the food and store it in the refrigerator. This will give you a further 48 hours to consume the food, or you can freeze it to use later, but do remember the all-important label. Cooking the food, elongates the food’s shelf life as it kills pathogens that could make you ill.

The bottom line is:

DO NOT eat, cook, or freeze food that has passed its use by date, even if it looks and smells ok.
Remember that you cannot see or smell the bacteria that will make you ill.

Examples of food with Use By dates on:

  • Meat products,
  • Ready-to-eat salads.

Best Before Dates:

Best Before Dates are there for quality

Sometimes Best Before Dates are referred to as BBE, which means Best Before End. These dates are not about safety, but actually quality.

If you were to consume the food and drink after this date it will still safe but may not be at the best of its quality.

As with Use By dates, the validity of the Best Before Date is only there should you store the food and drink in the way that the packet says to store the food.

Examples of food with Best Before dates on:

  • Frozen foods,
  • Dried foods,
  • Tinned foods,
  • Cheese.

In summary:

Use By Dates:

Safety of the food date.

Best Before Dates:

Quality of the food date.

Sniff Taste:

We have heard people talk about the Sniff Test. We thought that we would explore this for you against the idea of Use by and Best Before dates.

Best Before Dates are acceptable use sensory cues to assess if the food is okay to eat. Examples of sensory cues could be looking for visible mould on bread, tasting biscuits or crisps to see if they are stale, or sniff some dairy products to see if they have soured.

On the flip side, use by date food is not acceptable for sensory cue checking to assess if food is safe to consume. Beyond the use by date food can look and smell fine however it will not be safe to eat.

Responsibility for Food Expiration Dates

It is the food manufacturers responsibility to decide whether to apply a use-by date or a best before date. Manufacturers of food will reflect factors such as:

  • How was the product made,
  • Ingredients used and shelf life of such,
  • The risk to health of eating the product to far in the future.

The History of Use by and Best Before Dates

It was during the 1950s, some 70 years ago, that the idea of printing dates on food began. It started with Marks and Spencer but was only used in their stockroom.

It was 1970 when the first dates hit the shop shelves and was 1973 when they became known as ‘Sell by’ dates. The store introduced them with an advertising campaign with the tagline:

‘The sell-by date means that St Michael foods are fresh.’

This campaign was followed with a TV advert starring Twiggy.

Other supermarkets quickly adopted the dating concept, with evidence that shoppers liked the reassurance of the date on their foods. It was in 1980 that the sell by date idea was expanded to what we are familiar with today: ‘Use by’ and ‘Best Before’.

And Finally…

We hope that we have helped to explain the difference between the Use by and Best Before dates on foods, and as supermarkets start to go full circle and remove use by dates on certain products, we hope that we have provided some useful information on the sensory cues that you can use going forward.

Stay safe with your food
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