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Truth About Best Before and Expiration Dates on Food

food waste

Many people believe that the dates printed on most food items are an indication of food safety, discarding food items as soon as the period has elapsed. According to a UK waste and recycling advisory body, the average British family throws away £470 worth of food every year!

Some of that food is genuinely spoiled, but the expiration date so many people interpret as scripture on food safety is nothing of the kind.  Interestingly, in America, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only mandates expiration dates on infant formula and baby food. US Manufacturers of other products are not legally required to include a date at all, and they have sole discretion on what date to choose if they decide to provide one.


Most people have no idea what the most common phrases mean. For example, a "best before date" has nothing to do with food safety. Instead, it represents the last date the manufacturer believes that a given product will have its best possible quality. They typically undersell not only the shelf life of the item but also the quality it will retain after their arbitrary date.

The government has actually considered scrapping best before dates to help prevent food waste. Best before dates can give a misleading impression that food is no longer suitable for consumption, meaning lots of consumers will throw out their food after the best before date has passed when they don't need to.

Date marks such as 'display until' or 'sell by' often appear next to the 'best before' or 'use by' date.  Some shops use these to help with stock control.  They are totally irrelevant to shoppers

A "sell-by date" designates the last day a manufacturer believes retailers should display an item before refreshing their inventory. Retailers have no legal obligation to follow the manufacturer's recommendation (except with infant formula), and many states have no laws to that effect either. Those that do tend to limit it to extremely perishable items such as milk.

You will see 'use by' dates on food that tends to go bad quickly, such as meat products and pre-packed salads.  Unless the food has been frozen within the prescribed time, don't use any food or drink after the end of the 'use by' date on the label, even if it looks and smells ok as it could be a health risk.

In order for the 'use by' date to be a valid guide, you must follow storage instructions such as 'keep refridgerated'. If you don't follow these instructions, the food will spoil more quickly and you may risk food poisoning.

Remember that 'Use by' does not always mean 'eat by'. If a food can be frozen, you can extend its life beyond the 'use by' date.  But make sure you follow any instructions on the pack – such as 'freeze on day of purchase', 'cook from frozen' or 'defrost thoroughly before use and use within 24 hours'.

Don't ignore use-by dates or you could be end up with a nasty bout of food poisoning, an illness that has over 5.5 million of us rushing to the bathroom every year.



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