date on tin

Action: Learn what the dates on your food really mean!

Display until … Sell by … Use by … Best Before … what it all means and why you need to know?

Reducing food waste is becoming an imperative, and one of the ways we can do that is to use things up in a timely way. But food date labels can be a little confusing, so our action this week is … learn what they mean.

Why is this important?

Food waste is highly unethical, and results in unnecessary carbon emissions (contributing to global warming) and the unnecessary use of packaging (contributing to plastic waste). Also, of course, for an individual household, it also results in you spending more than is needed, so reducing food waste saves on your shopping bills.

Did you know, according to Olio, a third of all food produced globally is never eaten, and the value of this wasted food is worth over $1 trillion a year? Also according to OLIO, all of the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be fed on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe.

What do the dates mean?

NB: these are based on notes from the UK Food Standards Agency, but similar rules and terminology is used in most countries.

Use by xx/xx/xx 

Food may contain bacteria and if stored for too long or at the wrong temperature can cause food poisoning, so it’s important to understand the different types of dates and advice on food packaging. A use-by date on food is about safety. This is the most important date to remember. You can eat food until and on the use-by date but not after. You will see use-by dates on food that goes off quickly, such as meat products or salads.

For the use-by date to be valid you must store food properly. For example, if the instructions say to refrigerate after opening, you should keep the food in a fridge at 5°C or below.

After the use-by date, don’t eat, cook or freeze your food. Also, bear in mind that food can look and smell fine after its use-by date, but that doesn’t mean it is safe to eat. It could still be contaminated. You cannot see, smell or taste the bacteria that cause food poisoning.

Best before xx/xx/xx

The best before date, sometimes shown as BBE (best before end), is about quality and not safety. The food will be safe to eat after this date but may not be at its best.

Flavour and texture might not be as good, for example.

Best before dates appear on a wide range of foods including frozen, dried and tinned. Again, the best before date will only be accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the packaging.

Display until / Sell by xx/xx/xx

Sell by dates are for retailers, to help with stock rotation and control. They should not have food past it’s sell by date in store.

Avoiding food waste

Plan your meals ahead

Get into the habit of checking what you already have in the fridge and freezer before you go shopping. Look out for foods that are approaching their use-by date and other fresh foods that can go off over time and try to use them up first. In particular try and use the following in strict rotation:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • meat and fish
  • cheese, milk or other dairy products

Freeze and defrost food properly

Food that is properly frozen won’t deteriorate and bacteria cannot grow in it, so when frozen it can’t become more unsafe. Once defrosted however, the pause button is off, so only defrost food as you need it and then cook and eat it straight away.

Once food has been defrosted, use it within 24 hours and cook it until steaming hot before serving. Check packet instructions to ensure that foods are suitable for freezing, especially for ready-to-eat (convenience) foods.

Check out the great information at Love Food Hate Waste (Opens in a new window) including lots of ideas for reducing food waste.

Take action

Know your dates, and make sure that you are vigilant about use by dates; best before dates give you more leeway and scope to reduce food waste.

If you haven’t already, please sign up for our fortnightly bulleting, Take Action, using the form below.

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