/ Food & Drink

Will new “use by” guides mean we’re more frugal with food?

Best before date on soup carton

“Use by”, “best before”, “sell by”… the abundance of different dates on our food can be confusing. But all that is set to change, thanks to new guidance on food date marking out today – will it help us waste less?

It’s estimated that we throw away around 5.3 million tonnes of food every year in the UK, costing the average family with children about £50 a month.

WRAP has called for changes to the date marking on food because their research shows that we throw food away unnecessarily when it’s past the date shown.

Should we “sniff and see”?

Our recent survey found that people use the date marking in different ways – and that for some, it can actually be a way of helping to reduce waste.

We found that nearly half of people in the UK are trying to waste less food. Of these, half are checking use by dates more carefully to avoid waste, but almost four in ten are ignoring some use by dates and relying on other checks instead, like whether the food looks and smells alright.

When we asked “have best before labels gone out of date?” in a previous Conversation, many of you, like Richard, admitted to doing just this:

‘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. I’ve tended to ignore “use by” dates unless the food looks or smells off.’

Food waste is clearly a really important issue – for the environment and our pockets. But so is food safety – and the bad news for those who use the “sniff and see” method is that food is unlikely to look or smell different even if it’s contaminated with food poisoning bacteria.

How are food dates changing?

To add to the confusion of the current system, some companies also add “display until” or other dates for stock control reasons. When I had a quick look around some supermarkets recently, use by and best before dates were used inter-changeably on some foods, such as hard cheeses.

So what’s about to change? The guidance published by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and FSA today advises food companies to remove their display until dates and gives advice about when to use a use by and when a best before.

The long and short of it is that highly perishable foods (like fish and dairy) must have a use by date, whereas storecupboard goods (like tins and crisps) can get away with a best before date. In other words, use by is for safety and best before is for quality.

Will all the confusion be cleared?

But they’ve ignored one anomaly that I’ve never understood – eggs. Eating eggs once they’re too old can be a potential safety issue, but manufacturers have always been allowed to get away with a best before rather than a use by date. The excuse for not addressing this is that it’s dealt with by specific legislation about marketing of eggs.

What a shame they haven’t sorted out all the potential confusion. But hopefully the guidance will mean no one thinks there’s such a thing as a ‘sell by’ date anymore. Which dates are most important to you and do you think this new system will be easier and make you waste less?

David F says:
15 September 2011

following on from what I’ve been saying on Twitter…

Fruit and veg in the likes of tesco is appalling, it has been for a while now. Stuff bought on a friday night/saturday morning isn’t lasting beyond monday and for people like myself who tend to shop once a week this is pointless. For example, a 2kg bag of potatoes bought last friday (9th September) started to go green by sunday evening and by monday afternoon had stalks sprouting out all over the place. Date on the bag, display until 12th use by 14th.

The overall quality of fresh food is declining, forcing people into wasting food. No one wants to use vegetables that are on the turn and shouldn’t have to shop every other day to avoid wastage. I don’t remember things being like this when I was younger.


Potatoes are alive and will start to sprout, even if kept in the fridge. Organic potatoes seem to do this more quickly and others may have been treated to slow down sprouting. A lot of sprouting potatoes are thrown away because they are thought to be harmful. That is not true.

Potatoes will start to go green if they are kept in the light. Unless they are on display outside a shop, greening is more likely to occur after purchase. Cut off green parts before cooking potatoes.

Always store potatoes in a cool, dark place.


Measures to cut down waste of food are long overdue, but a lot of waste is simply due to buying more than needed. A lot of this must be down to supermarket offers such as ‘buy one, get one free’. In my view these should not be permitted for perishable foods, the ones with the ‘use by’ dates.

David F says:
15 September 2011

I used potatoes as an example, the principle seems to be the same across the board, carrots, broccoli, cabbage etc. It feels like they have been bought in bulk cheaply and stockpiled, to be drip fed to the shelf. The date on the bag doesn’t necessarily reflect the amount of time these have been in the supply chain. Cucumber is a big one for this, I’ve picked up a half cucumber in tescos that was well inside its date window and it was starting to liquefy.

And i totally agree about the bogof situation. What’s more annoying is the amount of offers on alcohol when it really should be on non luxury items like, milk, bread fruit and veg. But that’s another debate entirely.


I have had the same problem as David F with Tesco cucumbers. I understand that chilling increases ethylene production and ethylene increases the rate of ripening and deterioration. (Ethylene is a gas released naturally by fruit & veg. and assists in ripening.)

Whether the chill damage is done before or after sale I don’t know, but removing the shrink-wrapping will allow ethylene to escape.

Putting fruit and veg in plastic bags is convenient for display and transport but it is not necessarily the best way of storing it at home.

David F says:
15 September 2011

Makes me think that they might be nearer frozen than chilled for a lot longer than we think before they hit the shelves.

It’s not just the date on the bag that needs looking at, its the overall system of supply. In my opinion corners are being cut for the sake of profit. I know thats nothing new but it is getting out of hand.


Have you noticed that cucumbers and other veg are date marked when packed in plastic bags but not when sold loose.


‘Use by’ and ‘best before’ dates should be enough, so ‘sell by’ dates could go as far as I am concerned.

Everyone needs to be aware that ‘use by’ dates are far more important. At best food poisoning is unpleasant and at worst it can be fatal. Smelling food is useful but is not a reliable indicator of whether it is fit to eat.

It is a good idea to smell food even if it is within its ‘use by’ date because it may not have been stored correctly.