Food Safety: Understanding ‘Use By’ and ‘Best Before’ Dates

Today marks the start of Food Safety Week 2012, organised by the Food Standards Agency. This year’s theme is ‘Food Safety on a Budget’. It focuses on helping people to plan meals in advance to avoid food wastage; understand the differences between ‘Use By’ and ‘Best Before’ dates; and how to safely store and use leftovers.

According to the FSA there are over a million cases of food poisoning every year, 20,000 hospitalisations and 500 deaths. Many of these cases can be avoided by following a few simple rules – like understanding and adhering to food date labelling for instance.

We will be posting regular blogs throughout Food Safety Week, each on a different aspect of food safety. Today we’re going to explain the difference between ‘Use By’ and ‘Best Before’ dates on packaging.

‘Use By’ dates

If food packaging bears a ‘Use By’ date, then it really does mean that it should be consumed by that date – even if it looks and smells OK. This type of labelling is used for foods that can go off quickly such as prepared salads, smoked fish and meat products. Eating them after the marked date can be dangerous to health.

Nobody likes to throw food away, so check ‘Use By’ dates on items in your fridge regularly. If you realise that you’re not going to be able to eat them before the ‘Use By’ date, check the packaging to see if it can be frozen. You can freeze food any time up to the ‘Use By’ date.

How to treat ‘Use By’ food that you’ve frozen

When you’re ready to cook or eat the food be sure to defrost it thoroughly. This can be done in the fridge or the microwave.  If you froze the food on its ‘Use By’ date, then you should cook and eat it on the same day. If you froze it before the ‘Use By’ date, the packaging will tell you how long you can store it in the fridge. For example it might say ‘eat within 3 days of opening.

‘Best Before’ dates

‘Best Before’ dates appear on food with a longer shelf life. Examples include bread, biscuits, cereals, confectionery, dried foods, canned products, drinks etc. Eating food after this date doesn’t mean that it will be unsafe, but it won’t taste as good.

‘Best Before’ is concerned with food quality, therefore, rather than food safety and you should suffer no ill effects from eating food a number of days after the published date. This is where you can use your judgement – if it looks and smells OK, it probably is.

When eggs reach their ‘Best Before’ date

The exception to the rule is eggs. In this instance, provided that they are cooked thoroughly, they can be eaten a day or two after their ‘Best Before’ date. By ‘cooked thoroughly’ we mean that both the yolk and the white or solid. This will kill any salmonella bacteria. Alternatively they can be used as an ingredient in something that will be cooked all the way through, such as a cake.


…. ‘Best Before’ dates will only be accurate if the food is stored according to instructions i.e. ‘refrigerate once opened’, ‘store in a cool dry place’ etc.

Scroll to Top