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Understanding “Best Before” and “Use By” Dates – Health & Safety

April 30, 2024 | By: Leigh Boakes

While we have all seen the various date marks that appear on food packing and labels, such as ‘Best Before,’ ‘Use By’ and ‘Best Before End,’ many consumers are uncertain about what each label signifies. These dates help ensure that food is consumed while it is fresh and safe, and understanding their implications is essential for preventing foodborne illnesses and reducing waste.

"Best Before" or “Best Before End”

The "Best Before" or "Best Before End" dates indicate the period during which the product is expected to retain its optimal freshness, taste, and nutritional value. It is important to note that this date is about quality and not safety.

You might see a "Best Before" or “Best Before End” date on shelf-stable products like canned goods, dry pasta, or cereals. These items do not spoil quickly but might lose some of their freshness or flavour past these dates. Manufacturers determine the "Best Before" or “Best Before End” dates by considering factors such as ingredients, processing methods, and packaging technology, which influence how long the product will remain at its peak quality under normal storage conditions.

Consumers can use the "Best Before" or “Best Before End” dates as a guide to ensure they are experiencing the product as intended by the manufacturer. However, it is important to note that many products with a "Best Before" or “Best Before End” date can often be consumed safely beyond that date, provided they have been stored properly and show no signs of spoilage. Food items past their "Best Before" or “Best Before End” date might not taste as good as before; they might lose some texture or flavour, but they do not necessarily pose a health risk if consumed after the marked date.

"Use By"

In contrast, the "Use By" date is strictly related to safety. This label is applied to perishable items such as meat, dairy, and other foods that, due to their nature, can harbour pathogens if left too long, even under proper storage conditions. The "Use By" date tells consumers the last day that a food product is safe to consume. Consuming foods past the "Use By" date can lead to foodborne illnesses, making it crucial for safety to adhere strictly to these dates.

Manufacturers set "Use By" dates based on rigorous testing and understanding of how their products degrade over time. These dates assume that the product has been stored properly from the time of purchase. Therefore, it is crucial for consumers to follow the storage instructions on the packaging to ensure the product remains safe to consume up until the "Use By" date.

For safety reasons, it is highly recommended not to consume products after the "Use By" date has passed. Even if the product seems fine, there could be bacteria present that are not detectable through smell or appearance that still cause illness. Adhering to "Use By" dates is essential for maintaining food safety and protecting health.

Consumer Responsibilities and Practices

For consumers, it is vital to always check the "Use By" and "Best Before" dates before purchasing and consuming food products. While shopping, you should prioritise buying items with a longer shelf life unless the shorter date aligns with immediate consumption plans. Once purchased consumers should adhere with the storage instructions to ensure that the safety and integrity of the food is maintained.

Beyond mere adherence to dates and instructions, consumers are encouraged to use their senses—smell, sight, and taste—to judge food quality prior to consumption. Signs such as an unusual odour, mould, or an off appearance are clear indicators that the food may no longer be safe to consume, regardless of the date marked.

When transferring or decanting food from one container to another, it is important to consider both food safety and the preservation of the food’s quality. This practice can sometimes be necessary for reasons such as saving space, portioning food for future use, or simply switching to a preferred storage container.

After transferring food, the new container should be labelled with the content's name, the original "Use By" or "Best Before" date, and the date of transfer. This practice helps track how long the food has been stored and ensures that it is used within safe and optimal periods. Ensure that the storage conditions (temperature, humidity) match the original recommendations, as improper storage can degrade even non-perishable items faster.

Food Business Operator Responsibilities and Practices

Date labels should be applied to all foods unless they are unopened and already have a supplier’s date code. This is an essential food safety control measure and HACCP requirement to prevent out-of-date and potentially dangerous foods being used and sold. Accuracy in labelling not only complies with regulatory standards but also guides consumers in making safe choices and aids in reducing food wastage.

Below is an example of some typical shelf lives applied in the catering industry, where longer dates are required additional laboratory testing may be required:

  • Chilled foods prepared in-house: Use by 3 days (including day made).
  • Chilled foods bought in: Use by manufacturer’s “once opened” advice.
  • Chilled ready to eat foods, vacuum packed in-house: Use by 5 days (include day packed) or original use by date (whichever is shorter).
  • Chilled raw (or pasteurised) foods, vacuum packed in house: Use by 10 days (include day packed).
  • Frozen foods prepared in-house: Best before 3 months (only freeze if longer than 2 days shelf life left).
  • Frozen foods, defrosting: Use by 2 days (including day thawed).
  • Ambient foods chilled after opening: Use by manufacturer’s “once opened” advice.
  • Foods decanted that can be stored at ambient: Best before manufacturer’s “Best Before” date.

Effective stock management is also a critical responsibility for business operators. This involves organising products to ensure that older stock is used first, minimising the amount of food that expires unsold. Moreover, considering the environmental impact of waste, operators should explore strategies to donate near-expiration foods that are still safe to eat to charitable organisations and food banks.

Educating staff on food safety and proper stock rotation practices, including the importance of date labels and the First In, First Out (FIFO) method, is essential. Staff should understand the differences between "Best Before" and "Use By" dates and the implications of these dates on food safety and customer health. Such training helps maintain the quality and safety of the food served and sold, reducing the risk of foodborne diseases.

For food business operators, the management of "Best Before" and "Use By" dates is particularly critical when transferring or decanting food products. This process is not just about maintaining food safety and quality, but also about complying with food safety regulations and minimising waste. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the handling, transferring, and labelling of food products within the establishment can be developed. These procedures should include steps for maintaining the integrity of food during transfers, such as using sanitised containers and tools, and minimising the time food is out of refrigeration.

Whenever food is transferred to a new container, it is essential to label it clearly with the original "Use By" or "Best Before" date. Additionally, information about the transfer date and the staff member who handled the food can also be included to aid in traceability. Ensure that the food's storage conditions are optimal even after transferring to new containers. This includes controlling temperature, humidity, and exposure to contaminants. Regularly check the condition of food products near their "Best Before" or "Use By" dates to decide whether they can still be used or need to be discarded.

In conclusion, while you can consume foods past their "Best Before" dates, you must do so with a keen awareness of quality and conduct thorough checks for any signs of spoilage. Foods consumed after the "Use By" date can cause foodborne illnesses and pose a risk to safety, therefore “Use By” dates should be strictly adhered to.

About the Author
Leigh Boakes
Leigh Boakes
Leigh Boakes, Author at Wirehouse Employer Services

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