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Understanding Food Labelling: Best Before vs Use By Date Explained

When we're shopping, we instinctively look for cues and signs that we are picking freshest food possible.

We do this by comparing expiration and best before dates (which can be its own challenge to find) because of course we don’t want to buy something expired, or that will go bad tomorrow.

So, what’s the difference between an “use by date” and a “best before” date?

The difference between best before and use-by dates is really important.  Some foods deteriorate over time in a way that may present a food safety risk. On most packaged food, depending on the product, you will see either: 

  • a use-by date - relating to food safety

  • a best before date - relating to food quality

A use-by date on food is about safety. This is the most important date to remember.  Never eat food after the use-by date, even if it looks and smells ok, as it could make you very ill.

The best before date, sometimes shown as BBE (best before end), is about quality and not safety. After the best before date listed on a product, the food will be safe to eat but may not be at its best. Best before dates appear on a wide range of foods including:

  • frozen foods (such as peas, chips and ice cream)

  • dried foods (such as pasta and rice)

  • tinned foods (such as baked beans and canned tomatoes)

  • cheese

Don't forget.....

The best before date will only be accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the packaging.

So best before dates really have nothing to do with safety and more to do about quality and freshness.

Some quick examples: an unopened juice bottle might still be safe for consumption past the best-before date if it has been stored according to the manufacturer’s instructions, however, might now contain less vitamin C than displayed on the label.

Pasta may become brittle, or, a bag of unopened cookies past the best-before date might be stale but is not unsafe to eat! Therefore, it might be worth having a bite of these cookies to check whether they still taste good before tossing them away.

How to read the date

Check out the pictures above, BB stands for Best Before, and MA if present stands for Meilleur avant which is the equivalent in French (which may be on some of our Canadian products).

The year will always be first, followed by the month and day. The other numbers are not relevant. Here’s a list of how months are abbreviated:

JA: January | FE: February | MR: March | AL: April | MA: May | JN: June | JL: July | AU: August | SE: September | OC: October | NO: November | DE: December

Food past the Best Before date

So, what does all this mean? It means that technically, you can eat, purchase and sell foods that have passed their best-before date.

However, there is no one-rule-fits-all.

While you may eat cookies or other properly stored foods which have passed their best before dates, improperly stored foods can go bad before their best before dates. For example, poorly stored milk or cottage cheese will go bad before its best before date if stored poorly.

Use your judgement and senses (as well as resources like the internet) to assess whether a food is still good to eat.

However, do NOT rely solely on your sight and/or smell as some bacteria are not visible to the human eye or detectable through the nose. If you have any doubts then it’s best to repurpose, discard or compost if possible.

Just don't forget the golden rules: Check it, Sniff it and Taste it! 

So next time you’re out shopping, don’t be so quick to be turned off by foods that are close to or past the best-before dates. Feel confident grabbing them before they are thrown out by the store because no one else wanted to buy those items, and safe your self some money too knowing you're helping reduce food waste!

And if you fancy helping us reduce our stock wastage, check out our clearance range of products which are available at a discounted rate!

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