The truth about “Best Before” and “Use by” labels

The Truth Aboutbest Before And Use By Labels Blog

What exactly is a “Best Before” date?

The date of minimum durability, or ‘best before’ date, is the date until which food retains its specific properties e.g. color, taste, texture, as well as any specific qualities which relate to the product, like vitamin content etc. All of this as long as the product has been stored and packaged appropriately. This basically means that you can still eat the food after this date, but it may have lost some of its qualities.  The “best before” is about quality, not safety.

Here in Germany and I suspect in most of the EU, almost everything has to have a “best before” date. Which in German literally translates as minimum durability date. However, it doesn’t tell you when you can’t eat that food anymore. It just tells you when the food doesn’t have to legally fulfill the attributes advertised anymore, like color, taste, texture, etc.

This is partly to inform the consumer on how long they can expect the food to be in top quality. And partly an insurance for the producing companies, in case they would get sued if the food is not as advertised. Typically, a ‘best before’ date is used for food products such as canned, dried, ambient, frozen foods, cereal, sugar etc.

Is it legal to sell food after the best before date?

Yes, food can be legally sold after the best before date as long as it is not damaged, deteriorated or perished. But by selling the food after its “Best Before” date, the seller takes responsibility for the quality of the food and therefore may commit an offense if the food is not of the quality the customer expects.

STAY AWAY FROM the following foods that are past their “Best Before” date: raw meat, especially seafood, preserved meats, soft cheeses, slightly damaged soft fruit. I would personally never buy these past their expiration dates.

And if you are like me, you might have been tempted in the past to cut the molded part of a soft fruit and eat the rest. It turns out soft fruit and all soft, high moisture foods, in general, are usually contaminated below the surface. So you should throw out the whole thing once you see it has been damaged. Even though molds and yeast do not typically have an instant effect, these toxins have been linked to severe long-term effects such as liver cancer.

An insider interview produced by Canadian source CBC News informs us about some potential supermarket threats. For example, products that have been cut in half or repackaged individually from a bigger piece might potentially be part of a product that has not sold initially and is now being relabeled. Sometimes even passed before their “Best before” date.

They also show how marinated meats specifically could potentially be meats that have almost gone bad and have been repackaged in some big store chains to hide away smells and increase their value.

What is a ‘use by’ date?

In the case of foods which from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health, the date of minimum durability must be replaced by the ‘use by’ date.

Assuming it has been properly stored, this is the date up until which a food may be consumed safely. After the ‘use by’ date a food is deemed unsafe and cannot be sold. Typically, a ‘use by’ date is used for fresh, ready-to-eat and chilled foods such as meat, unpasteurized fruit juice, yogurt, milk etc. Unless frozen before, foods labeled with a use-by date must be either eaten or thrown away by that date.

Even if the food looks fine in many cases, it may be unsafe to eat because the nutrients in the food may become unstable or there may be a build-up of bacteria and toxins. It is also illegal to sell food after the use-by date has passed. An exception to this is raw, shell eggs which require a ‘best before’ date as set out in Regulation (EC) No. 589/2008 as regards marketing standards for eggs. Here is a bit more about storing eggs.

Do all foods require a shelf-life declaration?

No, a shelf-life declaration is not required for the following foods:

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables, with the exception of sprout seeds and similar products such as legume sprouts which do require a date of minimum durability
  • Wines, liqueur wines, sparkling wines
  • Beverages containing 10 % or more by volume of alcohol
  • Vinegar
  • Cooking salt
  • Solid sugar
  • Confectionery products consisting almost solely of flavored or colored sugars
  • Chewing gums

At the end of this article, I would recommend you take all these dates as guidance and you also in checking every time your food for changes in smell, color and texture and throw out immediately anything suspicious. Nothing is worth more than your health.  



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