What are best before and use by dates?

Table of Contents

Food law requires that food business operators adhere to Use By dates on food labels. It is good practice to also follow Best Before dates.

Date marking is also essential to track when food needs to be used or thrown away and to permit good stock rotation.

There are two types of date labels that food handlers and food businesses need to be aware of. It is important that food handlers are trained to know the difference. The first one is:

Use By

Use By Dates

Use By dates appear on high-risk perishable food items.  Use By dates are about safety.

It is important to follow proper storage instructions as set out by food manufacturers. Usually, this is chilled storage. Refrigeration temperatures by law need to be 8°C or lower, ideally 5°C.

Use by dates appear on a wide range of food products, for example:

  • Fresh meat products
  • Fish products
  • Dairy products

It is a criminal offence for a food business to sell or use food past its Use By date. This is for food safety reasons. When the Use By date has passed, harmful bacteria may have multiplied to unsafe levels and as such is a risk of food poisoning. Food products past their use by dates are no longer edible food.

The second one is:

Best Before

Best before Dates

Best Before dates appear on lower-risk foods such as canned food, dried food and frozen food. These foods have a longer shelf-life. Best Before dates are only reliable if food has been stored in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. It is not generally an offence to sell food past the Best Before date, but the food quality may not be as good. For example; the texture or flavour may not be as good.

Examples of foods that have Best Before dates are:

  • Unopened canned or tinned foods
  • Dried products such as bread, biscuits, dried rice, pasta and cereals
  • Products that are high in sugar such as chocolate, sweets, jam and preserves
  • Acidic products such as unopened pickled foods

‘Once opened’ dates

Some foods will have special storage instructions once they have been opened. For example; some foods with a Best Before date have to be refrigerated once opened. They must also be used within a certain time frame once opened. Examples include sauces such as tomato sauce, BBQ sauce and mustard. Once opened these usually require refrigeration and use within 2-4 weeks. 

Cooked meats with a Use By date often have to be used much quicker once the pack has been opened. For example; cooked ham usually must be used within 2 days of opening.

It is essential to check the storage instructions on the label for any special requirements once opened.

Display until dates

You may have seen these on eggs in the supermarket. These only appear on products that have a best-before date but are used to improve stock rotation in retail premises.

Summary

It is an offence for food businesses to use or sell food past the Use By date because the food could be unsafe.

It is generally safe to use or sell food past the Best Before date but the quality may not be as good.

Food businesses should follow the storage instructions on the label for products that have been opened.

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