Use-by date vs best-before date: meaning and difference

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use-by date

The UK produces the highest amount of food waste in Europe, according to research from Business Waste, with an incredible 9.4 million tonnes of food thrown away each year. And that’s even though more than eight million people in the country are in food poverty. One of the key reasons why so much food is thrown away is confusion between the use-by date and best-before date. In this article, we’ll look at what they mean, and the steps you can take to reduce food waste.

What does use-by date mean?

The key difference between the two food labelling terms relates to a safety issue, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA). The use-by date indicates to the consumer when a product is no longer safe to eat. If it is past the use-by date, you should not eat, freeze or cook the food. Typically, items that need refrigeration such as dairy, meat, salads and ready meals, have the use-by date on them.

Here is some key information you should be aware of to understand the use-by date meaning:

  • The use-by date provides information about when the food should be eaten by;
  • Use-by date labels are normally found on foods that need to be kept in the fridge or freezer;
  • Eating food that has passed its use-by date could put you at risk of getting food poisoning. Be careful, even if the food looks ok to eat, it could contain harmful bacteria that you cannot see or smell;
  • Check your food on a regular basis and be aware of when their use-by dates are. For example, check the hummus use-by date and make sure you have stored it properly to ensure it keeps its flavour and quality.
  • Freezing food before it reaches its use-by date can extend its life. When you defrost it though, make sure you eat it within 24 hours.

Use-by date on meat: is it safe to eat?If you have stored the meat properly since you bought it, ideally you should consume it by the use-by date. If you have frozen it, make sure you defrost it and eat it within a day. Always check the chicken, beef, pork and bacon use-by dates before you cook these items.

What does best-before date mean?

The best-before date provides the consumer with information about when the food item should ideally be eaten by. However, it is not dangerous to consume it after that date. According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), there is not a health issue involved with the best-before date. Should you eat the food beyond the best-before date, the flavour and texture may not be at its optimum.

The following points should be taken into consideration when understanding the best-before date meaning:

  • Best-before dates normally appear on items with a longer shelf life, such as rice and pasta;
  • Food that has passed its best-before date is not dangerous to eat - the quality, flavour or texture may be altered though;
  • The best-before date is an indication to the consumer as to when the food is at its best quality.
  • Check your food on a regular basis and be aware of when their use-by dates are.
  • Examples of foods with best-before date labels:
  • Dry products: starches (pasta, rice, semolina, bulgur, oatmeal, lentils, chickpeas, beans, peanuts, flour, etc.), seasonings (salt, pepper, herbs, oil, vinegar, soy sauce / ketchup / mustard / mayonnaise), tea, chocolate, crisps, biscuits, honey, coffee, sugar;
  • Dehydrated products: powdered milk, puree;
  • Sterilised products: sterilized or non-fresh dairy products (UHT milk, UHT cream, butter, soft cheese, etc.), soup, fruit juice, etc;
  • Canned and preserved products: peas, corn, etc;
  • Frozen products.

Can you eat eggs past the best-before date?

Can you eat eggs after the best-before date? That has long been a discussion in many British households. Concerns over issues such as salmonella and food poisoning have led to many people questioning as to when eggs should ideally be eaten.

But guidance published by the FSA says eggs, if they are cooked properly, can be eaten up to 48 hours after their best-before date.

Eating eggs after their best-before dateFigures from the British Egg Industry Council show that 720 million eggs are thrown away in the UK when they are still safe to eat, costing Britons £139 million.

Perishable food: can you eat food past the use-by date?

We often forget to trust our senses. However, one of its crucial functions is to warn us of dangers, particularly when it comes to food.

  1. Observe: for example, can you eat steak after use by date? If red meat has an abnormal colour, for example a more blackish-brown shade, it has expired, and you should not eat it. If the mozzarella or tomato sauce has mould traces, throw them in the food recycling bin or compost. If the chocolate is covered in a thin layer of white, it is not mouldy, but rather a sign of aging. It will simply have lost some of its quality.
  2. Smell: the smell of fish or fresh meat is neutral and pleasant. If it has a strong odour, it has probably expired.
  3. Touch: feel the texture of food. Milk that has gone off will be lumpy, expired yogurt will be spoiled (the liquid part will be separated from the more compact or grainy part), spoiled meat will become slimy.
  4. Test: if you have not yet made up your mind about the quality of the food, the last option is to test it to make up your mind.

Not all mouldy foods should not be thrown awaySome foods are still edible once the mouldy part is removed, such as hard-skinned fruits and vegetables (carrots, peppers, cabbages, radishes) or cheeses with rinds (Manchego, Emmental). In fact, mould penetrates very little. However, you should be careful with grated cheese because mould spreads very easily.

Other mouldy foods that should be discarded automatically: meat, leftover ready meals, cream and yogurt, fresh and soft cheeses, bread and other bakery products, moist fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, etc.).

What about vacuum-packed food and the use-by date?Smoked salmon is a food that usually comes in a vacuum-pack. The smoked salmon use-by date is normally about two to three weeks after the packaging was sealed. But, once you have opened it, you should ideally consume it within five days.

Food preservation: our advice

To enjoy your food while it is at its best quality, you should follow the guidelines on the packaging - that’s what they are there for. However, we have also come up with some advice that you can follow to ensure your food keeps as fresh as possible.

In the fridge:

  • Tidy up your fridge. Remove the food packaging when you return from shopping. By doing this, you will have more space in your refrigerator, the cold air will circulate better, and you will also limit the presence of microorganisms present in the packaging during transport or storage. Group your food logically (keep your sauces together, sausages in the first compartment, cheese in the second, etc.). You will spend less time looking for your food and letting the cold escape from your fridge.
  • Check the temperature of your fridge. The temperature should be between 0 and 4 degrees. However, keep in mind that the temperature is not uniform inside your fridge. The coldest part should be reserved for raw meat and fish, dairy products, cooked products, etc. The refrigerator part is for cooked meat and fish, cakes and pastries, cheese, etc. The refrigerator door is usually the hottest part of the refrigerator and is suitable for drinks, butter, sauces, etc.
  • Clean your fridge to avoid the spread of bacteria. It is advisable to clean it once every two weeks.

In the freezer: You can keep many foods for several months in the freezer: fruits (cherries, apples, bananas, etc.) and vegetables, cheese, bread and pastries, meat and fish, puff pastry, short dough, pizza dough, ready meals, etc. Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Freeze your food when it is as fresh as possible. Indeed, freezing does not mean killing microorganisms, but simply putting them to sleep. For example, if you freeze meat a day before the best-before date, you will have to eat it very quickly once it is defrosted.
  • Never refreeze food that has been frozen and then thawed. Surely you have already heard about the dangers of breaking the cold chain (intoxication). When food is thawed, bacteria start to grow again due to the warmer temperature. Refreezing at home is slow and these microorganisms still have time to develop.
  • When you do the shopping, go through the frozen aisles last if possible and put the frozen items away first when you get home.

Store your spices, onions, shallots, garlic, cans, jars, oils, potatoes, chocolate, milk, etc. in a dry and dark place.

Food waste: how to reduce it?

It is important to know that food waste occurs in all phases of the food chain: production, transformation, distribution, and consumption (in restaurants and at home).

Zero waste

Zero waste is a process that seeks to reduce waste as much as possible, something that would be a huge benefit to protecting our environment. Of course, the goal of zero waste may seem utopian. However, we can all help reduce food waste:

  1. Refuse what you don't need: don't buy single-use plastic bags, multi-pack foods, or plastic straws.
  2. Reduce: reflect before buying impulsively and do not accumulate unnecessary products. Eat first the ones that you have in your fridge and that are close to the expiration date.
  3. Reuse: discover new recipes and cook with what you have in your fridge. Do you have stale bread? Turn it into French toast.
  4. Recycle: recycle your waste in the different containers that exist.
  5. Reintegrate: return food to the ground to fertilise your garden through compost: eggshells, peelings of fruits and vegetables, etc

Solutions to combat food waste

Today it is increasingly easy to limit food waste by changing purchasing and consumption habits:

  • Many supermarkets offer discounts on their short-lived products. They are usually indicated with a label or are stored in a special department.
  • The Too Good To Go app offers to buy surprise baskets of short-lived products at a reduced price. Useful when you don't know what to buy and cook when your fridge is empty.
  • Ask for a "doggy bag" when you do not finish your meal in a restaurant: you will avoid wasting food and be able to enjoy the meal for a second time maybe the next day.

Discover more practical guides on recycling and how to help you limit your carbon footprint.