We’re all familiar with ‘best before’ dates. Along with lists of ingredients and nutritional information, they are a mainstay on food packaging in the UK.
These dates appear in many different forms. Firms such as LabelsPlus provide a host of labelling options for food manufacturers to take advantage of. Often, this information appears on sticky labels and sometimes it is printed directly onto the packaging itself. Regardless of how it is presented, this information is important. It can help you to make savvy purchasing decisions and avoid health risks. But they can also be confusing. The following guide should help you get to grips with these dates.
‘Best Before’ versus ‘Use By’
It’s important to distinguish between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates. Use by dates are the most important source of information. The Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs note that these dates apply strictly to food safety.
As a general rule, you should avoid eating products that have gone past their use by dates or else risk making yourself sick. Bear in mind that it is an offence for firms to sell food after this date has passed. This highlights the importance of the issue.
In contrast, best before dates relate to the quality of food and drink products. In other words, if goods have gone past this point, they may not be as good in terms of their taste, appearance and texture.
A Note on Eggs
It’s worth noting that in the past, the Food Standards Agency made an exception with eggs. The organisation advised that these products should not be sold or consumed after their best before dates. This was because the items can contain salmonella bacteria. If salmonella is present in eggs, it can multiply rapidly and cause food poisoning.
However, the body has revised its guidance. It now suggests that as long as eggs are cooked thoroughly, they can be eaten a day or two after this date. According to the agency, eggs that have gone passed their best before dates by this margin should still be safe providing both the yolks and the whites are heated until solid. They can also be used in dishes where they are fully cooked, like cakes.
The Importance of Cutting Waste
When you’re referring to best before dates to determine whether or not products are still edible, it’s important to use some common sense. All too often, food is thrown away too early over unnecessary concerns about its safety. Highlighting the huge problem of food waste, a report produced by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has suggested that as much as half of all the food produced in the world ends up as waste. This amounts to around two billion tonnes each year. Over-adherence to best before dates could be contributing to this problem.
Certain products are very unlikely to cause poisoning even when they are considerably beyond their best before dates. For example, it’s easy to tell whether fresh fruit and vegetables are OK to eat by the way they look, feel and smell. Tomatoes are a good case in point. They are often at their best a week or more after their ‘best before’ date suggests.
In contrast, you have to be much more careful with certain types of meat and fish. For instance, chicken can deteriorate in condition very quickly so it’s best not to eat it much beyond its best before date. If you detect any unpleasant odour from the flesh, it isn’t worth taking the risk.
As a general rule, best before dates serve as a guide. You can’t rely solely on this information when you’re deciding whether or not to eat certain products. If you’re ever unsure about the condition of a particular food, you can get further information about its safety online.