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Knowledge Base » Food Hygiene » Difference Between Best Before and Use-By Dates

Difference Between Best Before and Use-By Dates

Last updated on 20th December 2023

You may have noticed that some of the products you buy have a ‘use by’ date printed on them, while others contain a ‘best before’ date. But do you really know what each one means?

What is the difference between best before and use-by dates?

Foods that you buy from shops, supermarkets and wholesalers will often have a date stamped somewhere on the packaging in the form of DD/MM/YY. This date will either have use by or best before (sometimes typed BBE or best before end) preceding the date.

Businesses that are responsible for the manufacture and production of food have a legal obligation to include a best before or use-by date on most items. Food manufacturers will have their own guidelines in place to ensure the correct labelling of the items they produce and will usually refer to their HACCP procedures to help determine this.

Showing A Business Manufacturing And Producing Food

Use-by dates relate to the safety of food.

The use-by dates mean that the product will not be safe for consumption after the date stamped on the packaging. Once this date has passed food should not be eaten, cooked, frozen or stored.

Calculating the expiry dates of food is a science and requires testing in laboratory settings. Food scientists will conduct experiments to decide how long it takes for microbes to grow on products and at what stage they multiply to a point that impacts food safety.

Best before dates relate to the quality of food.

The best before date means that after the date given the quality of the product may become impaired and the taste, smell or texture of the product might not be as appealing as it would be beforehand.

You may also see display until or sell by on some products. These labels are not a legal requirement and are there for the staff to reference in order to help them with inventory management and stock control. As a consumer it is the best before and, most importantly, the use-by dates that you need to take notice of.

Both use-by and best before dates are only accurate if the products have been stored appropriately and according to the instructions on the packaging. Products that require refrigeration should always be stored in the fridge at a temperature of 5°C or below.

Food that is frozen should not deteriorate and it is unlikely that large amounts of bacteria will be able to grow on it. However, food must be frozen at -18°C or less, be within the use-by date and be eaten within 24 hours of thawing to ensure it is safe.

Some products will need to be kept in a cool, dark place such as a cupboard or pantry. It is always best to refer to manufacturers’ guidelines on storing food and drink items in order to preserve them for the maximum amount of time.

Use-by dates

Use-by dates are usually printed on foods that are considered ‘high risk’ or perishable items such as:

  • Meat.
  • Fish.
  • Pre-packed salads and sandwiches.
  • Yoghurts, fresh cheese and other dairy products.
  • Unpasteurised juice.
Showing Foods That Have Use-By Dates On Them

Foods with a use-by date are often those that require refrigeration.

Consuming foods after their use-by dates is not safe and can lead to food poisoning. Food can be stored, cooked and eaten up until its use-by date, but after that it should be discarded.

After their use-by date, bacteria can grow on food even if it looks and smells fine.

Some foods will contain other information as a guide to keeping them from spoiling. It is important to follow these other instructions as well as adhering to the use-by dates, such as keeping the items refrigerated or frozen and following guidelines on cooking times or defrosting.

Some fresh goods can also be frozen to prolong their usability. You should refer to packaging for specifics but usually it will say freeze on day of purchase and always within the use-by date and use within X amount of time.

You might also find use-by dates on some beauty and skincare products or a small sticker that indicates ‘use within X months of opening’. This is because, under lab conditions, these products have been shown to contain harmful bacteria beyond this point when used regularly. This could lead to rashes, irritation or even skin infections if the products are used past their expiry date and bacteria has been allowed to grow.

Best before dates

Foods that might typically contain a best before date include:

  • Canned vegetables, soups and pulses.
  • Dried goods such as rice or pasta.
  • Frozen food.
  • Confectionery, including chocolate, sweets, candies.
  • ‘Long life’ items such as juice, milk or milk substitutes.

Foods with a best before date are often items that you would typically keep in the cupboard or freezer.

Showing Dried Goods Which Are Foods With A Best Before Date

Is it safe to eat products past their best before date?

Eating products after their best before date is not considered ‘unsafe’ but the quality of the product might begin to go down after this date. This could have a negative impact on the flavour, texture or taste of the product. The nutritional value of a product will also reduce after it has passed its best before date.

Whether you want to eat or drink something that has passed its best before date is a personal choice and might depend on what the item is and how long it is past its best before date. If only a few days have passed since the best before stamped on the item, there is unlikely to be any impact on the product at all; as time goes on the changes in the product’s quality will become more noticeable.

It is best to exercise common sense and your own judgement when choosing to eat food after its best before date.

Selling use-by and best before products 

Businesses may only sell food up to, or on, its use-by date. Selling food after its use-by date has passed is illegal. It is also illegal for a shop to change the dates on an item without seeking the permission of the manufacturer. If a consumer realises that they have accidentally purchased food that was already past its use-by date, they should be entitled to a refund.

As best before dates do not directly relate to food safety, it is possible to sell goods after their best before date. Some businesses may discount products in the lead up to their expiration date to encourage consumers to buy them.

Many consumers choose to purchase products that have a longer shelf life and businesses know this. Items that are being sold past their expiration date are usually clearly labelled as such and sold at a reduced price to negate customer dissatisfaction.

Some food types have specific legislation around their expiration dates and can pose a high risk to health if consumed once spoiled. Although businesses have their own legal requirements to adhere to as well as quality considerations to keep in mind, it is important to be a savvy consumer as well.

Uncut fruit and vegetables are not required to have a date expiration label. Pre-prepared items, however, such as bagged stir fry vegetables, cut up fruit and bagged salads can pose a high risk of food poisoning, due to the environment the packaging creates and the various contamination points that the fresh products may have encountered before being packaged. It is very important to refer to the use-by dates on pre-packaged salads, fruits and vegetables.

Fresh, uncut and unpeeled produce such as potatoes and carrots can be stored and consumers can use their common sense as to the freshness and quality of the product.

Eggs are said to have a shelf life of 28 days and are stamped with a best before date. However, guidance says they have to reach a consumer within 21 days of being laid (known as the ‘sell by’ date). This means that eggs should be delivered to the end user a minimum of one week before their best before date, giving a further seven days for the eggs to be cooked and eaten safely.

Eggs can pose a health risk, although all eggs stamped with the lion mark mean that the hens have been vaccinated against salmonella, meaning the risk of contracting it is very low. Eating spoiled or bad eggs can make people unwell, so it is always best to use eggs within their best before date and discard any that are cracked, have a bad smell or discoloured yolk.

A small number of items can be sold without a use-by or best before date being required.

These include:

  • Wine.
  • Strong liquor (with an ABV above 10%).
  • Vinegar.
  • Cooking salt.
  • Fresh bakery items (such as ‘ready to eat’ items you would reasonably expect the consumer to consume immediately/within 24 hours).

Some businesses may still decide to offer a guideline on the expiry of the above items, based on their own company standards.

Fresh Bakery

Tips to prevent food wastage 

You will not want to consume food past its use-by date as this could make you ill. You might not enjoy food that has passed its best before date as the quality and taste of the product could be impaired. If you have food that you do not want to eat because it has expired and you have concerns about its quality or safety, you will most likely throw it away. Throwing away food that could have otherwise been consumed causes food wastage.

Each year, 9.5 million tonnes of food wastage is created in the UK by households and businesses. To save you having to make the decision whether to discard food because it has passed its use-by or best before dates, here are some tips to prevent food wastage:

In commercial premises:

  • Stock rotation – Ensure stock that will expire first is displayed at the front of shelves or fridges and stock with a later expiry date is placed further back.
  • Take inventories at regular intervals – Thorough stock control and stock management will help to mitigate losses and wastage.
  • Good communication – In any business that deals with physical products good communication across departments helps to ensure orders are checked and accurate.
  • Pay attention – Check use-by and best before dates regularly. Take notice of what sells and what is popular.
  • Portion control – In restaurants and cafes pay attention to customer feedback and adjust portion sizes if you notice excess wastage.

In the household:

  • Meal planning – Decide what you will cook during the week and buy the ingredients you require after checking what you already have in.
  • Check packaging – You might be able to freeze some fresh produce if you are not sure you will eat it in time to prolong its shelf life.
  • Shop smart – Don’t buy bulk items just because they are on offer. Be mindful of dates on the products you are buying.
  • Portion planning – Prepare and serve food according to the appetite of the people in the household. Take note of how much is eaten and what gets thrown away. Charity campaign ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ has designed this handy calculator that can help you to get to grips with portion planning.
  • Organise – Have periodic clear-outs of the cupboard so items are not pushed to the back and forgotten about.
  • Donate items you are not going to use – Check to see if there are any local charities or food banks that can make use of unwanted items that are approaching their use-by dates or are past their best before dates.

By cutting food waste it is estimated that the average household could save themselves around £500 per year. By shopping smart and being a savvy business owner or consumer, you can help to create a more sustainable future by reducing the amount of food that you waste.

Understanding the labels on the products we buy is important. By knowing what to buy, when to buy it and exactly how long products are safe for, you will be able to make more informed choices around food safety, your health and your contribution to sustainability.

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About the author

Vicky Miller

Vicky Miller

Vicky has a BA Hons Degree in Professional Writing. She has spent several years creating B2B content and writing informative articles and online guides for clients within the fields of sustainability, corporate social responsibility, recruitment, education and training. Outside of work she enjoys yoga, world cinema and listening to fiction podcasts.

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