What is the difference between a 'best before' and 'use by' date?
Most prepacked food must carry an indication of minimum durability. This is better known as either a best before date or a use by date. These dates must be marked clearly on the label. If this is difficult the manufacturer must state where the date can be found, for example, Best before: see date on lid.
It's an offence for an unauthorised person to change the date on a product. Manufacturers are the only authorised people to do this.
Use by dates
You shouldn’t eat any food products that have passed their sell by date as it may not be safe to eat. Even if the food looks and smells fine, using it after this date could put your health at risk and cause food poisoning. It's an offence for food business operators to sell any product after its use by date.
Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 requires that a use by rather than a best before date is used on prepacked foods which are highly perishable and after a short period of time could be a danger to a person’s health.
Foods that have to be stored at low temperatures to maintain their safety rather than their quality need to be labelled with use by dates. They'll have a short product life following manufacture, and consuming them after their use by date could cause food poisoning.
You'll usually find a use by date on food that goes off quickly, such as:
- prepacked sandwiches
- ready-prepared salads
- cooked meats
- cooked rice
- pasta, or
- prepared fruit salads.
It's also important to follow the storage instructions on food labels, otherwise the food might not last until the use by date. Usually food with a use by date must be kept in the fridge.
Best before dates
Best before dates are usually used on foods that last a long time, such as:
- dried, or
- canned foods.
Best before dates are more about quality than safety. It should be safe to eat food after the best before date, but the food won't be at its best. After this date, the food might begin to lose its flavour and texture.
A best before date will only be accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the label, such as 'store in a cool dry place' or 'keep in the fridge once opened'.
It's not an offence under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 to sell food passed it's best before date. However, it may be an offence under Section 14 of the Food Safety Order 1991 as the food may not be of the quality demanded by the purchaser.
The retailer is responsible for making sure that food sold is acceptable for the consumer as it’s an offence to sell food not of the quality demanded.
Certain foods don't have to be marked with a use by or best before date.
- fresh fruit and vegetables, including potatoes which have not been peeled or cut into pieces (sprouting seeds and similar products must be date marked)
- wine, liqueur wine, sparkling wine and similar products
- any drink with an alcoholic strength by volume of 10% or more
- flour confectionery and bread normally consumed within 24 hours of preparation
- cooking and table salt
- solid sugar and flavoured or coloured sugar products
- chewing gum and similar products