When it's okay to ignore 'best before' labels

confused by food labelling the ghi is here to help
Can you ignore 'best before' dates?the_burtons - Getty Images

How confident do you feel that you know what terms like 'use by', 'best before', 'sell by' and 'display until' really mean on food packaging? According to research by the European Commission, confusion around the meaning of these labels could be contributing to as much as 10% of food waste.

With the price of food soaring, we're all looking for ways to make the most of what we have and eliminate waste wherever possible to save money. Reducing food waste also helps combat climate change; it's estimated that food waste alone contributes to 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is one of the reasons food waste app Too Good To Go has been working with food manufacturers for some time to reduce the unnecessary use of best before labels, which can result in edible food being thrown out.

But being clear on what these date labels mean can help you to combat food waste at home. Here's what you need to know.

'Best before' vs 'Use by'

While some foods such as fresh meat, fish and poultry, fresh pasta and chilled ready meals always need to have a ‘use by’ date for food safety reasons, others – including bread, loose fruit and vegetables and some cheeses, yoghurts and juices – don't.

Too Good To Go has been urging the companies that make our food to rethink whether some products that have previously carried a ‘use by’ date could have a ‘best before’ date instead so perfectly edible food isn’t binned unnecessarily. It also questions whether certain foods with ‘best before’ dates need to have a date mark at all – fresh fruit and veg isn’t required to have a date mark, unless it has been prepared, for example.

confused by food labelling the ghi is here to help
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"The truth is that the dates given on ‘best before’ labels are often extremely conservative and that food can have a much longer life than is specified, with no significant drop in quality," explains Too Good To Go co-founder Jamie Crummie. "The best way to tell if a food is good to eat is to look at it, smell it, taste it and to trust your own judgment."

You can already see ‘best before’ dates rather than ‘use by’ on some Onken yogurts and Laughing Cow cheese, and certain products from Danone are expected to follow suit soon.

How long can you eat food after 'best before'?

Ben Elliot, Defra’s food waste champion, said: "Often food that has passed its ‘best before’ date is perfectly safe to eat for weeks, or even months after. It is important that we help people better understand whether produce is safe to eat, and that information on food is clear, helping people make these decisions."

Less than half of respondents to a Europe-wide survey carried out by the European Commission were able to explain correctly what the terms ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ mean. While ‘use by’ is an indication of food safety (food shouldn’t be eaten past this date, even if it looks and smells fine), ‘best before’ is simply an indication of food quality (the taste or texture of food may change after this date).

confused by food labelling the ghi is here to help
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It goes without saying that avoiding unnecessary food waste could also help make your total monthly spend on groceries go further. To do this, it's important to understand the food labels you must pay attention to and which ones you can ignore:

Use by

This is the cut-off after which it is not considered safe to eat the food.

The NHS advises that use by dates are followed as, once they are beyond this date, more perishable foods such as fresh meat could cause food poisoning, even when they look and smell fine. It is particularly important for the very young, very old, pregnant women and the very ill to follow these guidelines, as these groups are most at risk.

Best before

This is very different to a 'use by' date. This indicates the period for which a food can reasonably be expected to retain its optimal condition, but eating anything past this date won't cause any health issues.

Products can outlast their best before date by years (in the case of tinned food) and still be safe for consumption. There may be a slight degradation in quality (as the ‘best before’ name implies), but no real bacterial risk.

By eating food that is past its 'best before' (but not its 'use by') date, we can reduce food waste and save money. So, trust your senses when it comes to 'best before'.

confused by food labelling the ghi is here to help
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'Display by' and 'Sell by'

These dates are instructions to the retailer to aid stock rotation. They aren’t directives to the consumer, but guidelines for shops on how long the products should stay on the shelf. WRAP advises these labels are for shops, not consumers, so you can ignore them.

A view from the GH Cookery Editor

"I think it’s important for consumers to use their common sense. With fresh produce, particularly meats, bacteria levels can get too high after the 'use by' date, increasing the chance of food poisoning, so it’s sensible to stick to them," says Good Housekeeping Cookery Editor Emma Franklin. "However, for anything else, I rely on my senses: does it look, smell and taste all right? Trust your gut instinct, and if in doubt throw it away, but not because of a date on a label."

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