Stop wasting Food: Best Before and Use By Dates on Food – what they really mean

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As a qualified chef (one of my many talents) one of my pet peeves is food wastage. It’s bad enough that we all buy to excess, cook to excess and don’t always eat everything we buy/cook so that we throw away far too much food. But on top of this we also throw away far too much food that is actually perfectly fine to eat/use because people get paranoid about the best before/use by and other ‘dates’ printed on packaging. So I thought I would just share a bit of information about these dating conventions in the hope that at least a few people will think twice before throwing away perfectly edible food!

Food Dating Conventions

Here are the main date marks you may see on food products, only the first two (use by and best before) are legal requirements in the UK. After explaining what each one means I will then explain how to check food for safety beyond the date marks. Thankfully the Government is scraping the extra date marks, which are used for stock control but I’m sure it will be a while before we stop seeing them on products!

Best Before – This is used on products that are ‘less’ perishable, they have a longer shelf life. Such items including flour, biscuits, cereals, canned foods etc. must carry this mark. This date indicates when the food is in its best condition BUT it can and usually is still fine to use beyond this date, sometimes for many YEARS!

Use By – This mark must be shown on highly perishable goods including cooked meats, dairy and fish products. Beyond this date some of these foods will definitely be unfit to eat, but some will still be safe for a day or two, check foods if you wish to use them beyond this date. It is, however, illegal to sell or serve food beyond this date so only risk it for personal consumption at home.

Sell By – Not a required marking but often used by stores alongside the use-by date to indicate to staff that these items mus be removed from sale on this date or they will be breaking the law of selling food past its use-by date.  This is not a date mark to concern yourself with stick to the above ones for accurate guidance.

Display until – Again not a required marking and not one to concern yourself with, similarly used to guide store staff about rotation and removal from sale of goods close to their use-by date.

Use within X days/weeks of opening – This is another thing you may see on a variety of products, basically it is an additional guide related to the best before. Whilst un-opened certain products retain their freshness for very long periods, but once opened they perish much faster, thus the ‘use within’ mark is manufacturers guidance to the consumer of the ‘revised’ best before date for the product AFTER it has been opened. If you have products that have one of these dates you may like to write on it the date you opened it so you know how far past this date you have gone/will go before you throw it away. But, don’t feel you HAVE to throw it away if it has been open past this period, many products will remain safe to consume beyond the ‘use within’ period.

Okay, so now you now what these things mean but how do you know if your food is safe to eat beyond the given dates? Well it’s down to common-sense really, some signs of spoilage are very obvious, others less so. Whether you choose it eat food beyond best before/use by dates is at your discretion, just be aware that if you eat something that is spoiled you may get ill! If you really aren’t sure if it is safe, err on the side of caution and throw it away rather than risk making yourself or your family ill.

Recognising spoilt food.

The most obvious signs of food that is unsafe to consume are:

  • Obvious visible moulds
  • Foul smells
  • Discolouration – dark or pale patches
  • Changes in texture – wrinkling, softening, drying, becoming ‘pulpy’
  • Bulging – in canned foods the can will look ‘blown’ and bulging due to the spoilage action of he micro-organisms
  • Change in flavour – tasting more ‘sour’ or just different from the usual taste.

In addition to these signs other things to look out for that could indicate food is unsafe include –

  • damaged packaging – broken seals, dented tins/cans,
  • signs of pest contamination – insects, animal droppings
  • dirty, wet packaging

These lists are not exhaustive, food spoilage can’t always be easily detected, so being cautious is always a good move but the extent of food paranoia is just a bit too much currently!

Here are a couple of other things that you might want to consider before you throw away certain things…

  • Chocolate – Whitish colouring on chocolate is not harmful/mould/spoilage, it is just milk settlement where the chocolate has warmed/cooled – it is safe to eat!
  • Eggs  –  Eggs can last a very long time beyond the dates given (even months!) To check for freshness – Place in water twice as deep as the egg a very fresh egg will immediately sink to the bottom and lie flat on its side, whereas a bad egg will float.
  • Bread – stale/hard bread is still okay to eat, but just better toasted. or used as breadcrumbs/ in a bread and butter pudding or similar…

I hope you have found this helpful!

If you have any tips of your own about foods that are safe to eat but might be thrown away because people assume they are not due to date marks please add them in the comments below! 

Thank you for reading!  If you have enjoyed reading this post please share it with others who may be interested and I always enjoy receiving feedback and comments 🙂


6 comments on “Stop wasting Food: Best Before and Use By Dates on Food – what they really mean

  1. Such a useful blog for helping clarify some terms The date clarification is especially useful. Thank you for all this great information.

  2. Very interesting information. I can’t stand food waste, and with 3 very small children at home, more gets wasted than I’d like. Ahh, if only I could teach a 2-year-old that if he doesn’t want to eat something, I can save it (vs. him throwing it on the floor or chewing it and spitting it out…*sigh*).

    Anyway, I never new that about the egg test! Very helpful.

  3. Good post there Erin, and great to have connected with you via the blog challenge!
    My tip would be to heed the use by dates on foods ( I used to work in the Technical Division of Sainsbury’s ) and food safety was part of our remit. All use by dates are devised through stringent microbiological testing by the supplier of the product. As you rightly say – the best before dates are fairly subjective, but the use by dates are set to prevent illness from food related micro-organisms.
    Also, in my experience much more food related illness is caused by poor food hygiene / food handling in the home, such as not understanding basics of cooling foods, than contamination in the supply chain.

    Totally agree with you about food waste – drives me mad! I’m big on freezing stuff, and getting creative with leftovers 🙂


    • Thanks Tanya, yeah I understand how the use by dates are devised and they are very accurate (and like you say poor hygiene/handling is far more likely to be the issue) but there have been times where without realising I’ve had a yoghurt (for example) several days past it’s use by – with no problems and yet other times things like milk not even having reached their best before date, have gone off (despite being in the same proper storage conditions that I always keep them. It is a bit of a hit and miss situation – but miss wrong and you get ill, so caution always the best policy 🙂

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