/ Food & Drink

Have “best before” labels gone out of date?

Best before date on a tin

How much notice do you take of “best before” dates? A new plan to overhaul the system aims to clear consumer confusion and cut food waste – so what do you think should be done with “best before” dates?

A quick question to get started – do you know the difference between “best before” and “use by” dates?

If you’re like me, you’re probably mumbling something about fresh versus dried foods, but do you know which date is used on each? I thought it was clear in my mind before I spoke to our in-house nutritionist, Shefalee Loth:

‘If you eat a product after the best before date it won’t taste its best but it won’t harm you. It is used on dried and canned food for example. A use by date is more important as after this the product is considered unsafe to eat. Use by dates are used on products such as fish, meat and dairy. You shouldn’t get the two dates on one product.’

So how come there are generally two dates on my food? ‘That will be either a “sell by” or “display until” date,’ she explains.

Plans for a shake-up

I’m glad that’s cleared up, but it has highlighted how we make assumptions about what we’re buying. Is having four different names for essentially two different things (when a product should be bought by and when it should be eaten by) really necessary?

Ministers don’t seem to think so – they’re expected to be unveiling new guidelines to simplify the use of these dates and clear up consumers’ confusion. This could mean an end to the best before dates that many people religiously follow.

While the exact details appear to be a bit fluffy at the moment, the main crux of the argument seems to focus on the amount of food we chuck out when it hits the best before date. A lot of which, it’s argued, is perfectly fine to eat.

A war on waste

A study by WRAP suggested that this kind of attitude contributes to 5.3m tonnes of edible food waste in the UK each year. Put that into context – each day we throw out 5 million potatoes, 4.4 million apples, a million loaves of bread and a million slices of ham. Whoa, I’ll remember that next time some food is heading for my bin.

There’s been a lot of talk of ‘sniff and see’ on the back of this news, something I’m a big advocate of. Often (even with perishables and dairy), I find that food lasts well beyond the use by date, which makes them a bit redundant in my mind.

And yet I’m still not sure that ditching best before dates altogether is the best option. As Shefalee pointes out, ‘”sniff and see” isn’t a failsafe method. Meat, fish or dairy could contain harmful bacteria long before they smell ‘off’.’

Plus, if people already happily throw away perfectly good food just because a date tells them to, won’t having no date at all make them even more nervous? Cue lots of panic and even more food being thrown out unnecessarily.

Should we keep best before dates?

Rumours suggest that some kind of use by date is expected remain. I’m interested to see how this all pans out – evidently we need more clarity, but we all have different attitudes to food consumption, so better education about food waste should accompany a new strategy.

What are your attitudes to best before and use by dates, and what would you like to see in the new rules?

George London says:
18 April 2011

I don’t understand why there’d ever be confusion. Sell By is rule for retailers, Use By is health advice for consumers, Best Before is taste advice for consumers. Who doesn’t understand this?

And if we were to lose Best Before, there’d be products with no date at all. At which point we’d end up demanding a manufacture date. So what’s the benefit?

I suspect that those reading this forum dont have any problem understanding the difference between “best before” and “use by” dates; but I suspect that many people do or just “err on the safe side” and dump anything past its “Best before” date.

I also think most retailers remove items past the “best before” date from their shelves and I assume dump or recycle it.
It is this waste that needs reducing.
Many items only have a “best before” date and I am sure that shops and some customers do need some dating system to allow stock management and make sure the older stock is used/sold first.

George London says:
19 April 2011

Supermarkets should rightly have to adhere to any justifiable ‘Sell By’ rules, and if goods pass their ‘Best By’ then they should be reduced to clear. I’d be surprised to find too many retailers throwing away goods that haven’t passed a legislated (ie ‘SB’) date!

I’m sure some people don’t understand what BB means (though it always makes me cringe to think about legislation for the purpose of ‘looking after the weaker-minded’), my argument was that I don’t see how removing BB helps.

I can see an argument that everything should specify all three dates, and have a ‘n/a’ for those products that don’t need one. If the BB date is always right next to UB and SB then who would get confused?

I have been living in China where they have an even more confusing system of just putting the manufactured date on food. I was forever throwing stuff away because I had no idea whether a piece of cheese manufacturered the month before was still edible or not (if blue fur was not present to give me a clue!). That system really is the worst one to live with. I often paid more for imported goods just because I wouldn’t end up wasting them so readily because they had a best before date.
I really condieer a sell by date to be something for retailers to use for their on-the-spot stock management, not really for the consumer.
I tend to stick by Best Before dates. It is very helpful indeed to have a date on medicines. I don’t like the one that they have on beauty products because it doesn’t really help -you have to know when you opened something to know whether you should really throw it away…

I’ve never thrown away a “best before” item until after that date is well gone – as it simply means that the item is usually edible but might not be as palatable. The date is very pessimistic anyway..

I’ve tended to ignore “use by” dates unless the food looks or smells off.- but depends on the difference in the date – a few days is ignored – a few months isn’t.

Fur on cheese is usually simply cut off – never had an ill effect from doing so.

We always buy expired “sell by” food and sometimes “best before” or even “Use by” food for our kennel dogs from the wholesalers.- so it is eaten and not wasted.

Interestingly enough our 50 dogs have never had problems from eating such food prepared at the kennels for many years – but do sometimes have sickness problems if volunteers prepare their own bought food for the dogs at weekends – So we’ve come to the conclusion that bad home preparation is the cause not the date on the meat from wholesalers.

I’m old enough (just!) to remember when Marks and Spencer pioneered the “sell by” date and used it as a major advertising and sales campaign in the 1970’s.

Presumably before they did this no one had any dates on the food and had to reply on honest retailers and commons sense in their own kitchens.

Being more realistic people bought fresh foods from greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, dairies and grocers and ether home froze it at once or ate it within at most a week of purchase.

To my mind the only reason we have ANY of these dates is that society has evolved so that it is now ‘normal’ to shop once a week or once a month, stock-pile obscene amounts of food of all types, and then expect to be able to eat it as and when we feel like it over the next week or month.

At the same time Home Economics has disappeared from school curricula (thanks Maggie), microwaving has become as good as universal, specialist shops have been forced out of the marked by supermarkets (thanks Lady Porter … don’t forget the homes for votes scandal), the “litigation society” has come to the UK (thanks USA) and the concept of a house wife or house husband, for whom a primary duty was DAILY shopping and food prep has all but become extinct.

Put together these changes in the way we live and you get a society where most people expect all food to come from a one-stop-shop, each item ridiculously over-packaged and with evidence ready to be used against the store if the consumer so much as doesn’t like the taste or colour, let alone becomes ill after eating the items concerned.

At some point we have to take responsibility for ourselves (we used to call this “growing up”) and we have to learn what is at it’s best, safe or unsafe and deal with it accordingly.

We can’t blame the people who currently can’t do these things: they have been either never taught how to or have been carefully “untaught” what they used to know, and guess what: it’s all for profit!

Bottom line for me: keep the “sell by” date to protect us against the unscrupulous retailers, of which there are many including big names (remember the “blue meat” scandals of which there have been several in the past decade), but get rid of “best before” and “use by”, replacing them with some real education.

I doubt my views are popular, but should we ever be faced with a disaster like Japan recently was with the earth quake, we will be far better off if people have these skills!

Dave Nicholls says:
5 May 2011

In all of these discussions, please spare a thought for us anosmics. Being unable to smell food makes it much harder to assess whether it’s safe to eat.

I now have an augmented nose, my wife, (who I didn’t marry specifically for her sense of smell although it does come in handy) but when I lived alone I would throw food away or avoid some types of low shelf life options.


will alecks says:
16 August 2011

One of the best ways to cut waste and save money is to buy food from one of those sites which sell food approaching or past its best before date (ie totally safe and perfectly good to eat). I use bestbuy-foods dot com

Jackie says:
7 March 2012

I have recently discovered that M and S Best Before date refers to the end of the day stated as being ‘best before’. e.g. If a product says Best before 9 March – it means best before the end of 9 March. My logic is that best before 9 March means it is best eaten by the end of 8 March.

M and S says its way of doing this is the same as other retailers. Whether it is or not – it makes little sense to me.

best before dates should definitely be done away with.
even my local Tesco admits to using the best before as a use by date on things like fresh strawberries for example. In other words, they ditch the food when it has reached its best before date
In my mind, the confusion is caused by not knowing how long after the best before date food is safe to eat