Your guide to food date labelling

Amy Wood - Nutritionist | 09 Mar, 2022

‘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.

Use by

‘Use by' = SAFETY

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:

  • Fish and seafood
  • Meat and meat products
  • Cooked meats and sandwich fillings
  • Ready-to-eat products such as sandwiches and wraps
  • Opened dairy products
Best before

‘Best before' = QUALITY

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

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables – store in the fridge and wash well before use. Use your eyes and nose to check your fruit and veg before eating – just because it's slightly wilted, doesn't mean it's unsafe to eat!
  • Bread – store in the fridge to use for up to two weeks after the 'best before' date. Of course, check for visible mould and throw away the whole loaf if you see any at all. Scraping off the mould you can see doesn't eradicate the network of mould you can't see!
  • Pastry – has a high fat content and is fine beyond its 'best before' date. Just consider any fillings – sweet ones like mincemeat and fruit are generally fine, meat or fish may not be.
  • Biscuits – even if a little stale, biscuits can last for weeks past their 'best before'.

Okay for months

  • Confectionery – you may notice a white film on your older chocolate. This just indicates sugar or cocoa butter separation from the chocolate, and isn't harmful.

Okay for years

  • Breakfast cereals and dried grains – thanks to their low water content, these products have a great shelf life. Dried pasta can even last up to three years past its best!
  • Tinned and jarred goods – unopened, tins and jars provide a tight seal to protect food from spoiling up to years after their 'best before'.
  • Frozen food – if the food was sold frozen and isn't meat or fish, the issue may be deterioration of texture and flavour rather than safety.

'Display until' and 'sell by'?

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'.

What's the crack with eggs?

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!

Looking to the future: the sniff test

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.

Final word

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.