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What's the difference between best before and use by dates?

Today, 29 April, is Stop Food Waste Day - a day where people are encouraged to be aware of food wastage in their homes.

Published: April 29, 2020
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One of the reasons for food waste could be confusion over the best before date and use by date on food packaging.

But what do these mean, and can food still be consumed if the date has passed?

According to Zero Waste Scotland, we’re wasting around 988,000 tonnes of food and drink every year and around half of all food waste in Scotland comes from householders.

Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland’s chief executive, said: “It has never been more important to get the most out of what we have. Just by planning ahead and storing food properly, we can all reduce our need to visit the shops as often and tackle household food waste at the same time.

We know that during times of change, our normal patterns of behaviour don’t always work so we’re here to help people to find new and practical ways to adjust and make the most of their food, time and money.”

Now that we are in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, and are being encourage not to go to the supermarket as much, it's important to understand the differences between used by and best before dates.

This will not only reduce food waste but also our time spent shopping for essentials when we may not need to.

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

Use by dates refer to food that can be eaten up to the end of this date.

The Food and Drink Federation says: “’Use by’ dates must be declared on food products which, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health."

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Zero Waste Scotland's advice is: "Food can be eaten up to the end of this date but not after even if it looks and smells fine. Always follow the storage instructions on packs."

Best before dates refer to quality rather than safety, which according to The Food and Drink Federation means that the item is “expected to retain its specific properties, after which it will not be in optimal condition”.

It's important to note that food should be safe to eat after the best before date has expired, but it may not be at its best.

Common sense can be used for best before dates, and if the food or drink looks and smells fine then it's good to consume.

The same can be said for used by dates with dry good such as biscuits but not fresh produce, such as chicken.

A report in 2017 produced by UK sustainability experts WRAP said that clearer guidance on date labels could cut food waste.

As reported by Zero Waste Scotland, the guidance reiterates that ‘use by’ is the most important date label and the only one which relates to food safety. It states that only one date label should ever be used on packaging, calling time on stock control dates like ‘display until’ and reiterating that guidance on open packages – such as ‘use by x date’ – should only feature if food safety is an issue.

The report also calls for a further roll-out of changes to the commonly used ‘freeze on date of purchase’ label to reflect that foods can be safely frozen right up until their use by date.

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What about sell by and display until dates?

The Food and Drink Federation says that “display until” and “sell by” dates “are not recommended industry best practice", as they could add more confusion for consumers.

"They were previously used by some retailers to help with stock control purposes only and are not aimed at consumers,” the organisation states.

Top tips from Zero Waste Scotland

Ensure the temperature of the fridge is between 3°C - 5°C, too warm and items such as milk will perish quicker.

Store dry ingredients including flour in airtight containers or sealed clip bags so they last even longer.

If eggs are nearing their expiration date, yolks and whites can be separated and frozen. With the yolks perfect for enriching omelettes, the whites can be used for sweet treat meringues. 

If sugar gets damp and goes hard, gently reheat in the microwave in a bowl covered with kitchen paper to absorb the moisture.

Freshen up wrinkled and wilted vegetables in a bowl of cold water for half an hour.

Soften honey, syrup or treacle that has crystallised by gently reheating in a container over hot water.

It is safe to freeze the majority of food right up to the use-by date, and then defrost in the fridge when required.

Bakery goods including pies, tarts and cakes (except ones with fresh cream) can be portioned or sliced and stored in freezer bags. Frozen portions can then be defrosted and reheated.

Fresh meat including chicken can be put in the freezer up until the use-by date. Meat should be frozen in an airtight container or wrapped well in cling film, marked with the use-by date. Either defrost in the microwave using the ‘defrost’ setting or thaw in the fridge overnight and cooked within 24 hours.

Bread can be frozen either as a whole loaf or as the last few slices in the bag before the best before date. Slice the bread up and loosely tap on a hard surface before freezing to prevent the frozen slices sticking together. Bread can be toasted straight from the freezer.

Foods that may last longer 

Tinned food

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Tinned foods have long shelf lives, ranging from months to years but storage and care need to be taken into consideration.

WRAP say that tinned foods, including canned vegetables, soups, beans, meat and fish, can be consumed up to three years past the “best before” date “so long as still sealed, protected and free from dents”.

Milk

Some milk producers are no longer adding use by dates to packaging as milk in order to reduce waste, as milk will smell bad when it has spoiled. Fridge temperature is key for keeping milk longer - about 5 degrees is optimal.

Flour

Flour has a natural smell and colour, so any change to this outwith the best before date means it's best not to use it. But if it still looks and smells fine then it is good to use.

Storing flour in an air tight container is the best way to keep it for longer.

Condiments

Sealed jams and other condiments or sauces will keep long after their best before dates - even for as long as three years after the best before date if tightly sealed.

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Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related.

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