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Using ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ labels effectively

Read about how to use 'best before' and 'use by' dates so that you can avoid food waste.
© EIT Food

As you saw in Step 1.7, there is widespread confusion around the use of date labelling on food. The requirement to include ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates on all packaged food to improve food safety, had an unintended consequence: food waste. Some estimates suggest that about 10% of the total food waste in the EU is attributable to such misunderstandings – that’s around 24,000 tonnes a day (1).

Ensuring date labels are used correctly for short shelf-life products such as milk and yoghurts, fresh juices and chilled meat or fish would have a significant impact on reducing food waste. Here’s how they work.

In the EU there are two main types of date labels:

  • The ‘best before’ date gives information that is relevant for food quality. This is the date before which the food product retains its properties and therefore, its expected quality. (This does of course depend on the food being properly stored which we’ll discuss in the next Step). Foods that have been kept beyond their ‘best before’ date are still safe to eat as long as they have been properly stored and the packaging is intact.

  • The ‘use by’ date gives information that is relevant for food safety. This is the date before which the food product is safe to eat, again, as long as it has been properly stored. The ‘use by’ date replaces the ‘best before’ date for foods that are highly perishable and might represent a health danger if kept for too long, like fresh minced meat. Foods that have been kept beyond their ‘use by’ date are unsafe to eat[2,3].

In surveys, EU consumers say they generally do look at the date labelling when buying food and preparing meals, though only 58% always do so [4]. However, less than half of the consumers gave the correct answer when asked about the meaning of the ‘best before’ date, and even fewer knew what the ‘use by’ date means. Some people confused the meanings of the two.

Food which is past its ‘best before’ date can still be eaten if the package is intact and if it looks, smells and tastes fine. Indeed, a study conducted in Denmark showed that many consumers check the edibility of food past its ‘best before’ date by looking at it, smelling it and/or tasting it [5]. However, consumers treated the ‘use by’ date in a similar way. Only 37% of the respondents said they would always throw away a pack of minced meat if it had exceeded its ‘use by’ date. Some 10% of these consumers would even taste it to check its edibility. This is unsafe.

The key message is that if you want to avoid food waste, then checking the edibility of foods that are beyond their ‘best before’ dates is good practice as this date is related to food quality. However, don’t eat food kept beyond its ‘use by’ date as this date is related to food safety.

There are some new technologies emerging that aim to help consumers decide if food products are still good to eat and that help retailers set prices depending on how close a product is to its ‘use by’ date in order to reduce food waste. For example, Mimica Touch is an indicator label for food freshness that changes its texture at the same rate as the food spoils and is more accurate than printed dates. And Wasteless provides a dynamic pricing solution for retailers that reduces the price of products as they near their ‘use-by’ date.

Do you think you’ll use date labelling differently now? And if so, how?

© EIT Food
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Understanding Food Labels

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