/ 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When we asked “have best before labels gone out of date?”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.

…….and I would like to see a sticker on my loaf of bread which tells me the date it was baked or displayed, along with its expiry date.

I look at the sell by date before I buy. If I’ve bought it and it’s in the fridge/cupboard then I tend to look at item for signs that it’s gone off: green mould, taste bad or doesn’t smell quite right. Something i was forced to do when I was a poor student.

David F says:
16 September 2011

the point is its going off too quickly now days. The price of food is too high for many people to be buying and having to throw out after a couple of days. Are we meant to be shopping every other day? Is this just a ploy to get us in the supermarket more frequently?

For years the date marking on food products has really anoyed me, I have always seen it as a way to make people throw away perfectly good food and go out and buy more. Who’s bright idea to introduce date marking was it in the first place, I have been told that a very trusted household brand was the first retailer to introduce it. Now we have a generation ( if not two or three generations) who are totally mislead be the system that a majority of them are wasting so much money on food that they wrongly believe to be “past it’s safe age”.
It’s great that the government are at last tackling the problem but we have an uphill battle to re educate the population.
Bad eggs float when put in a bowl of water.

We need to educate the public to understand that the ‘use by’ date is the one that relates to safety.

More reasons to get it sorted, I have just prepared potatoes for evening meal, one bag from Tescos shows display until 14 Sep, Best before 16 Sep, also another bag from Morrisons showing 17th & 19th .How can that make any sense? The potatoes are harvested around August and will continue to be sold across the country until next spring when the new crop arrives on the shop shelves.
So what am I expected to do with the potatoes I have in my kitchen?

Store them in a cool dark place, and not in a plastic bag. The date shown is a ‘best before’ date and not a date that they should be used by.

Trust not says:
16 September 2011

Common sense has to prevail, meal planning saves money, time and waste. Frozen emergency foods.
Whatever they come up with it is to help the supermarkets!

Hi Wavechange, you are so right, the public have have been institutionally mislead for years whilst the manufacturers and suppliers have been very happily feeding on the consumers total blind trust.
Previous governments must also take responsibility for allowing the public to be so mislead for so many years.


I buy my fresh food at Sainsburys because the food is definitely fresh – and – because I can pick it up to confirm it’s freshness the food lasts a long time when taken home. I buy BOGOF sometimes because I know I can eat it all before it goes off.. The local shops have much more poor quality fruit and veg. It could be because I used to buy fresh food during WW2 and learned to judge without any form of date stamp. Never been ill eating food well past it’s “sell buy” or “Use by” dates – though never bad. In the last 30 years of Sainsburys shopping I have had two pannets of strawberries uneatable the day after their use by date and one grapefruit that had started to go bad (no date stamp). The rest of fresh food has been very edible. I remember well drinking sour school milk with no difficulty or ill effect.

I do wonder sometimes – in “the old days” ‘fresh’ fruit and veg was often rotting and maggoty on sale yet we ate the ‘good’ parts without harm. Are people becoming more “whimpy”?

Incidentally – I freeze bread and it is very edible for months providing it is defrosted properly. This is true for much meat or fish (never frozen pork though)

As far as I know, strawberries sold by supermarkets are irradiated to extend the shelf life and the time that they can be stored in the home. If you don’t want irradiated soft fruit you need to avoid supermarkets.

@wavechange – seems unlikely. Strawberries grown in Kent would first need to be shipped to Swindon and passed through the only licensed irradiation plant in the UK, then shipped on to the distribution centres, then the supermarkets, by which time they would be well on the way to being rotten. Anyway, they would have to be labelled as irradiated so you would know of this was happening.

Thanks for this information Em. I was passing on what I had been told by a friend who normally gives reliable information. It’s good to hear that food has to marked if it is irradiated.

Use by dates
Now that we have Win 8 coming soon, others (FFox, GGL, perhaps even Safari, etc.), all tweaking with their browsers (Win 8 with everything! Win 7 was beta, and the new Win 8 is beta for Win 9, as so – this is quite clear because it takes about 12 months for the bugs to be removed, numerous updates installed, until it reaches the next beta stage, and the cycle continues. It is us who are their ‘testers’ who will dutifully report any issues to MS). Why have different version, surely cheaper to make one – i.e. Win 8 Home, Home Premium, Pro, Pro2, Complete, and the one we all get, Win 8 For Idiots (who think Pro is the best and must-have versiob), etc.

Anyway back to the the subject, use by dates.

Which? will be have a top-level board meeting shortly, to decide to put these dates on all their guides, which by the time they get them to the public and they attempt to be organised and start from page 1, the guide will have passed its ‘Use By Date’ and will confuse the elderly couple in the Which? adverts, who have made the decision after PC World invades their home, refusing to leave until they buy a green eco-friendly laptop – PC World, this is hard selling, watch out for hidden cameras and Donal McIntyre trying to see if he can sing and stream it to the world at large.

Back to the subject, I ate a piece of cheese yesterday, which my significant other had lovingly placed in an airtight container, only to told later by her that it must have been past that date by months – it was in that container which likes to hide in the fridge, never spotted until the fridge has a fault and needs a shut down. We will have ‘peel off’ dates soon, which we all will have the responsibility to put on any container if the product is transferred. Otherwise, Whiresearchershers will be doing surveys in all homes and solicitors (sorry, vermin) will be advertising: “did you eat from a container with a peel-off label missing or attached where it could not be seen? Claim today, 100% COMPENSATION with a life-time of containers and labels, with reminders where to stick them, sorry!! Sorry again and more for being so cynical, hope you had a chuckle, a small “lol” would be nice.

What I’d like advice on is the instructions on tins , jars, packaged meat etc along the lines of “Once opened keep in the fridge and use within two days.” I’m afraid to exceed these instructions by much especially with meat, in case having broken the seal on the package has removed some preservative gas or something. So living alone, I’m for ever throwing away half-used stuff because the stores refuse to supply in small containers or charge twice as much for the amount of food inside. I must say I have disobeyed the instructions with canned vegetables for instance, so far without ill effects. What about ham? Isn’t the whole point of curing ham to ensure it keeps all through the winter. Yet ham in packets has this “use within two days” notice. Anyone know anything about this?

Food in cans and jars is usually sterilised to kill all bacteria. Once opened, the food gradually becomes contaminated by bacteria and fungi (microorganisms) in the air. The process will be accelerated by contact with plates etc, touching the food, sticking spoons and knives into it and leaving it uncovered. It is best to treat the food in the same way as fresh food.

Canned ham does not contain enough salt, nitrates and nitrites to prevent spoilage by microorganisms, though what is present will inhibit their growth. On the basis that nitrates and nitrites can be converted to nitrosamines, which have been linked to cancer, it is probably good that the amounts present are no higher.

The obvious solution is to freeze the food you do not want to use within a day or two. It is best to do this as soon as possible after opening the can or jar.

This information about using within sometimes 24 hours of opening appears in very small print on most packets – sometimes on the back but worse on some others – inside the packet. In larger print and on the front will be a Use By date.

I appreciate that if you have something with a long time ahead Use By date that does not mean that you can leave it open for weeks – but 24 hours?

I object to this sort of information being displayed in this way. Please investigate it – and name and shame the companies secreting this information and yet giving it to worry customers and presumably cover their own backsides – when there is a better way to inform the public – tell them on the front of the packet if it is really important – next to the Use By date.

This is very good news I have been campaigning for change for a very long time now, this is the time to act

Janice Shell says:
28 September 2011

I use all sort of food past the ‘use by date’ eg milk, bacon, eggs etc. If it looks alright and smells alright then it is alright and I am still here to tell the tale. I recently found a packet of unopened bacon that was a least a week ‘out of date’ and it looked fine, smelt fine and tasted fine. I recently was in the company of a lady who had bought a yogurt and because the ‘use by date’ was that day she wouldn’t eat it. She gave it to me and I took it home, put it in the fridge and ate it a few days later. I would imagine changing the present system would save billions of pounds in wasted food. Let’s hope the Government changes the system sooner rather than later. Keep up the good work with your campaigns. Can I suggest petitioning the Government to pay if not all at least some unemployment benefit etc. via food stamps rather than cash. To stop the recipients of the welfare state from just exchanging the food stamps for cash everybody would be issued with a identity card with a photograph. Regards.

Should we sniff and see? YES! Oh so definitely Yes!

If we rely totally on the labelling we will be in real trouble. We have no way of knowing whether whatever strict controls should have been in place were in place in getting that product to the place that we bought it from. Blindly following bureacratic instructions and not taking into account our own observations is a real recipe for disaster.

We may also have not done the shopping ourselves or there may be something wrong with the fridge or freezer or someone took something out and forgot to replace it, or left it in the sun on the way home.

Please do not encourage people to disengage their brains.

Of course you should smell food. Some people deposit food in various places around supermarkets and ‘helpful’ customers sometimes put it back in the correct place, even if it has been unrefrigerated for days.

happy1974 says:
11 October 2011

how did we manage years ago when we didnt have fridges or freezers there was no dates then this country gone barmy over dates and things we can eat and cant eat lets go back to the 40s and 50s then see how we manage

It was simple – we shopped every day or every other day – Mothers did not go out to work – they were called HOUSE-wives. It meant that vast numbers also had proportionally far less money to spend as there was only one bread winner.

People thought long and hard about what they were going to spend their money on.

They saved up for things and often changed their minds whilst still saving having had time to think twice. Now it is all see-it want-it grab-it and go. Credit has a lot to answer for. So many things are bought when not needed and are often not wanted after such a short time. Too much stuff which clutters up our lives which then gets wasted as it can be more time-consuming to get rid of it sustainably than it was to buy it. Time is more precious than stuff. Some adjustment is needed!

Janice Shell says:
2 August 2012

When I was shopping yesterday a lady pointed out to me that a tray of 4 apples had a sell by date of lst August so I said I would mention it to a member of staff and get them reduced and she said ‘but I couldn’t eat 4 apples in a day’ – I was just gobsmacked and told her they would keep for ages but I don’t think she was convinced. I often consume ham, yoghurt, milk, bacon etc. past their sell by dates and am still here to tell the tale – I must have a strong constitution. I hate waste of any kind especially food. I think a big part of the ‘sell by date’ being introduced in the first place was for the food industry to make even more money from consumers by encouraging us to discard still fresh food unnecessarily.

Fruit is often not properly ripe by the ‘use by’ date and sometimes clementines and satsumas go mouldy before the use by date. As far as I know, you are fairly safe to eat fruit as long as it looks OK.

If food smells ‘off’ it is not a good idea to eat it, though not all bacteria and fungi are harmful, which is one reason why animals and people do not necessarily become ill if they eat spoiled food.

Unfortunately, food that is unsafe to eat does not always smell ‘off’. If it did, the only reason for food labelling would do little more than help people know they were buying fresh food. Some bacteria and fungi produce toxins and not all of these are destroyed by cooking. I don’t expect you to believe me, but you are taking a risk eating meat and processed food that is past its ‘use by’ date, even if it smells OK.