What do ‘Use-by’ and ‘Best Before’ actually mean? 

Written by Ollie Wilkinson

Eating expired food is a rotten way to spend dinner time. But with more dates than your Tinder-loving bezzie can swipe their finger at, it can be tricky to keep track of your produce, especially if you’re unsure of the difference between best before and use-by dates. 

To answer that question from the get-go… Best before dates, also known as a BBEs (best before ends), refer to the quality of the produce. Use-by dates refer to the safety. That’s the key difference between the two. 

Gone-off food leaving a nasty taste in your mouth? Check out our guide to become more shelf-conscious of what’s in your kitchen, and swerve that soggy spinach and festering fish, without adding to the global food waste crisis. 

What does the ‘best before’ date mean? 

A best before date is what it says on the tin (or wrapper, or bottle…). These deadlines are when produce hits its peak and slowly starts to lose its flavour, texture and quality. Common products with best before dates include pasta, rice and tinned produce. 

To put it in movie terms, Nicolas Cage’s best before date was just after filming Leaving Las Vegas. His use-by date was probably somewhere around Ghost Rider and The Wicker Man; in other words, about 379 films after his Oscar triumph. 

To put it in drinking terms, your best before date is probably somewhere around your fourth drink. You’re tipsy and sociable but still understand the jokes flying across the table, and feel comfortable talking to the in-laws. Your use-by date is shortly before you vomit in the bush and mistake your own reflection for an angry, disheveled badger. 

Is it safe to eat food after its ‘best before’ date? 

It’s still safe to consume produce that’s reached or exceeded its best before date, providing you’ve stored it according to the instructions. You may notice it doesn’t taste quite as delicious as the day you bought it, or that it has begun to harden or soften, but it’s still perfectly okay to eat. 

Is ‘best before’ the same as the expiry date? 

No. Best before dates and expiry dates are two entirely different kettles of fish (FYI, just an expression, not a means of cooking expired seafood). A best before date is the point at which produce starts to diminish in quality, while an expiry date signals when it is no longer safe to eat. 

Is the ‘best before’ date before or after opening the packet? 

The best before date is before the food has been opened. Much like Pandora’s box, once the packaging has been opened, it invites the evil micro-organisms, light, air and moisture in, which can cause food to spoil much quicker.  

Breaking the seal always involves a mad dash, no matter the context. And when it comes to opening food packaging, we recommend referring to the storage guidance, as many items will need to be consumed within a few days after you’ve unwrapped them. 

What does the ‘use-by’ date mean? 

A use-by date, also known as an expiration date, tells you when a perishable item should no longer be used or consumed. These are the spoiler alerts of the kitchen, and when food will start acting its age. 

If you’re ever confused between ‘use-by’ and ‘best before’, just remember: best before is your first date, when you’re testing the waters and playing the field a bit. Use-by is the second date, the one that usually tells you to bin things off. 

Can you eat food past its ‘use-by’ date? 

We strongly recommend against eating food after it’s reached its use-by date, as this could make you ill. If an item has reached its use-by date, chuck it on your compost or in the bin. 

How long can you eat food after its ‘use-by’ date? 

Never, unless you want food poisoning! Eating food and drink past its ‘use-by’ date can be a serious risk to your health. Always keep an eye on use-by dates, because once that day comes, we’re afraid your food has gone over to the dark side. 

If the expiry date is just a day or two away, you know it’s squeaky bum time, and a squeaky bum is the least of your worries once you’ve eaten out-of-date food. 

Does the ‘use-by’ date include that day? 

Yes. Use-by deadlines include the use-by date, but food should not be consumed once midnight strikes. 

Can you freeze food on the ‘use-by’ date? 

Freezing preserves food by slowing the spread of microorganisms. It can also preserve its nutrients. But you have to take care with expiry dates when sticking food in your freezer. Many items can be frozen on their use-by date, but you need to read the storage instructions before doing so. Check that the produce is freezable, and how soon it needs freezing. 

Can you eat frozen food past its expiration date? 

Wanna reduce food waste with ease? Give it a freeze! Freezing food is delaying the inedible, as bacteria struggles to grow in such conditions. This means it’s usually safe to eat frozen food past its expiration date, although it may lose a bit of its quality and taste if left for a while. However, there are some exceptions to the rule, such as ice cream, which shouldn’t be eaten past its use-by date. 

What about milk? 

490 million pints of milk are wasted in the UK every year, according to Wrap, yet research suggests that it can usually last several days after the ‘use-by’ date shown on most plastic bottles. 

This is why many drinkers of our glass-bottled milk rely on the sniff test to reduce the colossal wastage in farming, packaging and emissions. We guess you could call it a blind-date, only with less awkward escapes to the bathroom. 

What about sell-by dates? 

A sell-by date is aimed solely at retailers. This tells them when they should remove produce from the shelf and stop selling it to customers. Sell-by dates are a magnet for the infamous yellow sticker discounts, which as we all know, are a bargain hunter’s equivalent to blood in shark-filled waters. 

Many restaurants and retailers are now using anti-food waste apps, which heavily discount produce approaching its sell-by date to avoid needlessly tossing it in the bin. 

Is the sell-by date the same as the expiration date? 

No. A sell-by date tells a shop when they ought to stop selling a particular item. Usually, this date comes about two-thirds into its overall shelf-life. Expiration dates, on the other hand, are when food reaches its end, and should no longer be consumed. 

Now onto the meaty stuff… 

How do you like your steak? Medium? Rare? Well-done? Mouldy and spoiled? Here are the answers to some of the most-asked questions surrounding meat and expiry dates. 

Can you freeze meat on the use-by date? 

Yes, you can freeze meat up to and including the use-by date. But avoid consuming, storing or freezing it after the use-by date, and always give it a sniff first. 

How can you tell if meat is spoiled? 

If your beef has green spots, it doesn’t mean it’s extra grass fed. It means it’s old and full of mould, make no mis-teak! And if your eyes can’t tell if your meat is bad, your nose will. 

For example, if your chicken has a putrid smell and is starting to turn blue or yellow, that’s foul play in your stomach’s books. Or, if your beef has turned slimy and dry, it’s probably unsafe to eat. 

Does cooking meat reset the use-by date? 

No. The use-by date covers cooking, storing and eating. As soon as meat reaches its use-by date, don’t roast, fry or eat it! 

Canning waste 

If you’ve outlived the tinned food in your cupboards, you’re either a robot or have survived the apocalypse. But on the off chance it does happen, here’s our guidance on out-of-date tinned food! 

Always stick to the expiry dates of canned foods but use the sell-by and best-before dates as guidelines. The best before and sell-by dates tell you when it’s at its peak quality and nutritional value, not necessarily when it is ‘going off’. 

Wondering just how resilient canned food is? Check out the BBC’s tinned food experiment

Call time on food waste 

Our farm-fresh produce arrives with low food miles, short supply chains, and waste-free packaging. This freshness gives it the eco-friendly X Factor, making sure you get full delicious use of your groceries, while kicking food waste’s butt. 

Whoever said there’s no such thing as a bad apple hasn’t left a bunch in their fruit bowl for a several weeks. But fruit and veg scraps, while not exactly a tasty treat, can do wonders in your garden if you toss them in your compost bin. Looking for extra tips on reducing food waste? You’re in the right place – check out our guides below! 

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