‘Use by', ‘best before', ‘sell by', ‘display until', ‘best before end'…all different terms for the same thing, right? Wrong! To help remove confusion, and save on unnecessary food waste, here's a quick guide to labelling lingo.
Foods labelled with a 'use by' date are only safe to consume up until the date listed on the packaging. For the ‘use by' date to be valid, the food must be stored according to its storage instructions, most likely refrigerated [after opening].
Tip! If the packaging says a food is suitable for freezing, it's fine to do this up to and on its ‘use by' date, providing it has been stored correctly prior and it is used within 3 months.
Foods that have a 'use by' date tend to be higher in moisture and also higher in protein – the perfect breeding ground for nasty bacteria and other microbes! Therefore, not following the instructions or eating foods past their ‘use by' date increases the risk of food poisoning.
Examples of foods you should not consume past their 'use by' date:
Many of us take this to mean the same as 'use by' dates, chucking food out once it hits its 'best before' date. However, 'best before' isn't anything to do with product safety – it can be more about protecting a brand or supermarket's reputation for quality.
Once the food passes its 'best before' or 'BBE' date, the texture and flavour might have deteriorated slightly. The food hasn't necessarily gone bad – it is still safe to eat beyond this date, but the quality may not be as good. Like 'use by' dates, this will only be valid providing the storage instructions have been followed.
Okay for days/weeks
Okay for months
Okay for years
You may notice other terms such as 'display until' and 'sell by'. These dates aren't for us shoppers – they're an indicator for the supermarket staff to help with stock control. However, the UK government has recommended these dates be removed from packaging to avoid consumer confusion. The only dates we need to be concerned with are 'use by' and 'best before'.
Many of us associate eggs with being one of the more high-risk foods when it comes to food poisoning. However, with proper storage, they can remain safe to eat for longer than you may think. The date displayed on egg packaging is actually a 'best before' date, meaning they are safe to consume beyond this.
The 'best before' date is always set 28 days after the egg is laid. By law, suppliers and supermarkets have up to 21 days to sell the eggs, leaving seven days for us to eat them. However, if your eggs have passed this date, they can still be safe to consume, especially if stored in the fridge in an airtight container. In fact, one of the best ways to keep eggs fresher for longer is to keep the temperature around them as consistent as possible – so if storing in the fridge, place at the back rather than in the door where the temperature changes the most. Also make sure they're properly cooked if eating after the 'best before' date.
Tip! If you're unsure whether your eggs are safe to eat, try the classic water test! Pop your egg into a bowl of water – if it sinks, you've got the green light to eat. If it's suspended halfway, it's still okay. If it floats, it's best to ditch!
After bread and potatoes, milk is estimated to be the third most wasted food in UK households, with Brits throwing out around 490 million pints a year (WRAP, 2020). However, research has revealed that milk may be safe to drink beyond its printed 'use by' date.
During processing, milk is pasteurised, which involves treatment at high temperature to kill bad bacteria. While this process makes milk safe to drink, some non-harmful microbes remain in milk after pasteurisation which cause milk to curdle and spoil. Keeping milk cool slows the growth of these microbes so it doesn't turn sour as quickly as it would if it were left out at room temperature, which is why we keep our milk in the fridge! This can help it stay fresh for much longer than 'use by' dates may indicate.
Supermarket chain Morrison's have recently scrapped 'use by' dates on their own brand fresh milk, favouring a 'best before' date instead. They're now encouraging customers to trust their noses and use the sniff test to reduce unnecessary waste and only chuck milk out if it smells sour. Morrison's are the only retailer to have taken this bold step so far, but if it proves successful, it may encourage other large supermarkets to review their milk labelling and play their part in reducing food waste.
Whether or not a food is still safe to eat comes down to using our own best judgment in most cases. If it smells and looks okay, then it usually is, but if something doesn't seem right, trust your senses and throw it out.
Nutritionist Amy Wood (ANutr), MSci BSc Nutrition has a keen interest in the relationship between diet and health. Having been published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Amy is passionate about making evidence-based nutrition accessible to everyone and helping others to adopt a food-focused approach to taking control of their health.