Do you know the difference between a ‘best before’ date and a ‘use by’ date? Essentially, best before dates are an indication of quality, while use by dates are concerned with food safety. Certain high risk (from a food safety perspective) foods such as meat, dairy and processed fresh produce need a use by date. Other ambient or dried foods may only require a best before date, best before dates are also frequently seen on fresh products that are not processed at all, only packaged, such as a bag of oranges.
Date labelling practice began as a way to manage stock and quality, and to reassure consumers about the quality and freshness of goods they were buying, but that old chestnut - the law of unintended consequences - has bitten back. Research indicates that best before dates can cause food waste. Members of the public either do not know the difference between best before and use by dates, or they are nervous to take a risk on anything that might be ‘past its best’.
Throw in a proliferation of new terms such as ‘fresh by’, ‘sell by’, ‘expiration date’, and ‘farm fresh’, and the whole thing becomes a bit of a pickle. FoodCloud has created this guide - which has been reviewed by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland - that outlines how long foods might still be eaten after the best before date, providing the packaging remains intact and we follow correct storage guidelines, and do a visual check. This guide only applies to foods which declare a ‘best before date’ on the label and does not apply to foods with a ‘use by’ date.
FoodCloud, Ireland and the EU are committed to UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which aims to halve per capita food waste at the retail and consumer level by 2030.
In 2022, the Irish government launched its first National Food Waste Prevention Roadmap, 2023-2025, which includes action on date marking amongst its key priorities.
The potential for confusion around best before dates has been identified as a factor in food waste, therefore, as part of the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy the platform is reviewing ways to improve the use of date marking in the context of a proposal to Regulation (EU) 1169/2011 on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers.
So what’s the difference between a best before and use by date?
The best before date is defined in law as the date until food retains its specific properties (e.g. taste, aroma, appearance). Many foods are still safe to consume after the ‘best before’ date, provided that the storage conditions are respected, and packaging is not damaged, but they may begin to lose their flavour and texture. The use by date is the date up until which a food may be used safely i.e. consumed, cooked or processed, once it has been stored correctly. Don’t use any food after the expiration of the ‘use by’ date.
It is estimated at European level that in the EU, nearly 59 million tonnes of food waste (131 kg/inhabitant) are generated annually and Ireland alone wastes 753,0000 tonnes of food annually. 29% of that, or 221,000, is wasted at household level.
That’s why it is great that over the past year or two, supermarket chains have begun to remove some unnecessary date labels.
So, is it still good to eat? Take a look at our shelf life guide to help you decide.
Note: FoodCloud sits on the EU Food Loss and Waste Platform and supports the European Federation of Food Banks policy to support food waste reduction. FoodCloud would like to thank the Food Safety Authority of Ireland for reviewing our use of food after the BBD suggestions which are for guidance only. The production of FoodCloud’s shelf life guide was supported by AIB.
By Karen McGrane Capcarrere, Food Safety and Projects Manager