Manufacturers are responsible for deciding the most appropriate date labels for their products, based on scientific evidence for their safety and shelf life. Use by dates are used to ensure the safety of products and best before dates are used to ensure quality.
Therefore, it’s important to read the label on your food products. This includes the date label, how to store them, and for how long.
What's the difference between 'use by' and ‘best before’?
- A use by date is about food safety and is used on foods that go off quickly, such as raw meat or fish, cooked sliced meats, and some dairy products.
- A best before date is about food quality, rather than food safety. After this date the food will be safe to eat but its flavour, colour or texture might start to deteriorate.
Use by dates ensure food safety
Even if food looks and smells fine, it should not be eaten past its use by date as it might contain harmful bugs that could make you sick. You can’t smell the difference between bugs that spoil food and those that make you ill.
Foods can be eaten up until and on the use by date, but not after as they may no longer be safe to eat. Some foods can also be frozen (see our freezing food section below). Storage instructions provided on the label must be followed to keep the food safe, for example ‘store in a refrigerator’.
Best before dates ensure food quality
Best before dates appear on a wide range of foods. This can include frozen, dried and tinned foods, such as canned tomatoes, bread and cereal. A best before date will only be valid if the food is stored according to the instructions on the label.
An exception to this is eggs, which have a best before date of no more than 28 days after they are laid. After this date the quality of the egg will deteriorate and if any salmonella bacteria are present, they could multiply to high levels and could make you ill. Eggs can be eaten a day or two after their ‘best before’ date, as long as they are cooked thoroughly (such as a hard-boiled egg or used in a cake) as this will kill any bacteria.
For more information on use by and best before dates, watch our video.
What about the ‘sniff test’?
You can’t see or smell the bugs that can cause food poisoning, therefore it's important to read the label, follow storage instructions and adhere to use by dates when present.
- For best before foods, it is safe to use smell or appearance to decide if food is suitable/appropriate to eat. For example, look for the visual appearance of mould on bread or check whether biscuits/crackers have gone stale.
- For foods with a use by date, it is not suitable to use the ‘sniff test’ to determine if food is safe to eat. Even though food can look and smell normal past the use by date, it could still contain harmful bugs.
Some milk and dairy products may have a best before date, rather than a use by date. This is because the food businesses who produce these products apply certain technologies during production and the products undergo extensive testing. Food businesses must ensure they use the correct label on all food products.
- Milk and dairy products with a best before date can be sniffed to see if they have soured. However, you should always check the label first to make sure the product says best before.
- Milk and dairy products with a use by date should never be sniffed or used past the use by date.
Which foods are exempt from date labelling?
While most prepacked foods require either a use by or a best before date, there are some exemptions from date marking under The Food Information to Consumers (FIC) Regulation:
- fresh fruit and vegetables (including potatoes, which have not been peeled, cut or similarly treated); however, this does not apply to sprouting seeds and similar products such as bean sprouts
- wines, liqueur wines, sparkling wines, aromatised wines and similar products obtained from fruit other than grapes, and some other beverages obtained from grapes or grape musts
- beverages containing 10% or more by volume of alcohol
- baker or pastry cook wares which (given the nature of their content) are normally consumed within 24 hours of their manufacture
- cooking salt
- solid sugar
- confectionary products consisting almost solely of flavoured and/or coloured sugars
- chewing gums and similar chewing products
Read more about food labelling and use by dates here.
Reducing food waste
Food can be eaten past the best before date to help reduce food waste, as this label is about the quality of the food product and not food safety. After this date, the food is safe to eat but it will no longer be at its best. For instance, the food might begin to lose its flavour and texture.
Freezing is a great way of extending the life of food beyond its use by date, while also helping to cut down on waste. Freezing essentially acts as a ‘pause’ button prior to the date expiring. Food can be frozen up until the use by date but once defrosted, use it within 24 hours. Check the instructions on the pack to ensure that food is suitable for freezing and follow any freezing or thawing instructions, such as ‘freeze on day of purchase’. It is important that you thaw food in the fridge and use it within 1-2 days (unless frozen on the use by date, then use within 24 hours) after it’s been defrosted.
Read our full guidance on chilling food.
Plan your meals ahead of time
Planning your meals can also help to reduce food waste. Make a list before you go shopping and take note of what foods you already have in your fridge and freezer. When you plan your meals, keep in mind any food with an approaching use by date and try to use that up first.
Use leftovers safely
Put leftover food in the fridge as soon as possible as this helps to stop or slow down bacterial growth. Hot food needs to cool down first before storing in the fridge. Eat leftovers within two days as longer that this gives time for any harmful bacteria to grow and multiply. Only reheat leftovers once and make sure the food is steaming hot all the way through before eating.