Food: Use By, Sell By, Confused By! What it all Means

Modern food packaging carries an enormous amount of information about what you’re planning to eat – everything from the number of calories and its nutritional value, to how you need to store it and the ways in which it can be cooked. It’s all useful stuff of course, but while there’s a lot of truth in the old saying that “knowledge is power”, there are times when it can all seem a bit too much. The range of ‘use by’, ‘sell by’ and other, similar dates that routinely adorn food wrappers are good example, and for many people it’s often more a case of ‘confused by’ than ‘helped by’!

Wasted Food

Even worse, it is just this kind of genuine confusion over whether food is still actually safe to eat that contributes to UK households throwing away more than 8 million tonnes of food – almost 140kg per person, on average – every year, according to government studies. It’s a terrible waste, and it’s not just a problem for households. Official figures show that the average British restaurant throws out a staggering 21 tonnes of food each year, with around 10 per cent of the produce bought by caterers ending up in the bin!

Against that sort of a background, it’s pretty clear that anything that helps eco-friendly families avoid throwing away things unnecessarily – or mistakenly buying things that simply won’t last long enough in the first place – has got to be worthwhile, so here’s a quick guide to what all those dates really mean.

Use By

The first thing to know about ‘use by’ dates is that they really do mean exactly what they say, and because they’re put on foods which tend to be highly perishable and may pose a real threat to your health if consumed once they have gone off, they’re definitely not something to ignore. No matter how OK such foods or drinks may look or smell, once their time is up, don’t even think about using them – it’s just not worth the risk.

It’s also important to remember that for a ‘use by’ date to be a meaningful help in keeping you and your family safe, the food must be stored correctly, or it could end up going off sooner than the time it suggests. Following those instructions to ‘store in a cool dark place’, or ‘refrigerate’ – along with any others that may appear on the pack, such as ‘once opened, eat within three days’ – is a vital part of making sure you don’t get food poisoning.

Freezing food before its ‘use by’ date will extend its useful life, but again you need to check the label carefully for any additional information – and, of course, not all foods can be frozen successfully at home. For those that can, there may be special instructions for storage, such as ‘freeze on day of purchase’ or ‘consume within 3 months’, or for how to prepare them afterwards – ‘defrost overnight in a refrigerator’ or ‘cook from frozen’, for example.

Legally, shops cannot sell, or display items that have passed their ‘use by’ dates.

Best Before

By contrast, just because a food has gone past its ‘best before’ date, it won’t necessarily do you any harm, but some of its quality could have been lost – the texture or taste may not be quite as perfect as it should be. These dates are used on products which have a longer shelf-life, but which may still, never the less, deteriorate in other ways over time; chocolates, for instance, may begin to look less appealing, and biscuits may start to go soft.

As a general rule, there’s no automatic reason to throw out anything that has gone over its ‘best before date’ – though you will obviously have to use a bit of common sense when it comes to things like bread, which will eventually start to go stale or mouldy.

That said, there is one important exception – eggs. They are marked with a ‘best before’ date, which may be up to 28 days from the day they were laid, but by law, they can only be sold if that date still has more than seven days to run. Applying a quality-based standard to what is really a safety issue doesn’t do much to dispel the confusion, but treat an egg’s ‘best before’ as if it was a ‘use by’ and you won’t go far wrong!

Sell By & Display Until

‘Sell by’ and ‘display until’ dates, however, could hardly be simpler to deal with – at least as a shopper. They’re stock rotation instructions for staff, so you can just ignore them completely – although if you’re lucky, you can sometimes pick up a bargain when the shop marks down perfectly wholesome in-date food because someone has read the ‘sell by’ date as a ‘use by’ date that’s about to run out!

Whether you look at it as a way to save money on the household budget, cut your carbon footprint (remembering that every tonne of waste food rotting in a landfill produces around 200 cubic metres of methane – a major greenhouse gas), or simply avoid waste, understanding all these food dates makes an awful lot of sense.