Food and diet

Public urged to not ignore 'use by' dates

Consumers “are gambling with their health and risking food poisoning” by ignoring “use by” dates on food, The Guardian reported today. The newspaper says people are ignoring the guidance in a bid to save money.

This trend has been highlighted by the British government’s food watchdog, Food Standards Agency (FSA), as it launches Food Safety Week 2012 (June 11-17). The focus of this year’s campaign is to remind consumers of how “use by” dates work and the health risks, including food poisoning, associated with eating food after this date. The FSA also clarified that food can be safely eaten after its “best before” date. This is because “best before” dates only signal how fresh long-life food is, rather than whether or not it is safe to eat.

During its “Food and You” 2010 survey, the FSA examined people’s attitudes to food in the UK and found that 81% of people thought food prices had increased in the 12 months prior to the survey. It also found that almost half of the people surveyed felt they “always avoid throwing food away”.

To support Food Safety Week, the FSA has produced a leaflet and a meal planner to help people keep track of leftover ingredients and not waste them. The FSA is also urging people learn the difference between “use by” and “best before” dates.

Why has the issue been raised?

Food Safety Week is an annual event organised by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to promote the importance of good food hygiene in the home. This year, Food Safety Week is suggesting ways in which people can eat safely while saving money. The campaign’s advice includes:

  • how to use leftovers safely
  • how “use by” and “best before” dates work
  • ways to help plan healthy meals cheaply

The FSA has also produced a printable meal planner to help keep track of ingredients and make sure food doesn’t go to waste.

How do food dates work?

Lots of foods are labelled with “use by” or “best before” dates. “Use by” dates appear on foods that go off quickly and specify the last date they can be safely eaten, while “best before” and “display until” dates state the date when the taste or quality of the food will begin to decline.

“Use by” dates are typically found on dairy products, meat and fish, which spoil quickly and can cause illness if eaten after their “use by” dates. According to the FSA, it can be dangerous to eat food past the “use by” date even though the food might look and smell fine. It should be noted that instructions such as “consume within three days of opening” don’t mean that the products can be eaten for three days if they were opened on their “use by” date - this date should still be seen as the last date that they can be consumed safely. Freezable food can be frozen any time up until the “use by” date, although it’s important to check the packaging for further instructions on how to freeze and thaw it along with the length of time you can safely store it for.

Bob Martin, a food safety expert at the FSA, said: “It's tempting just to give your food a sniff to see if you think it's gone off, but food bugs like E. coli and salmonella don't cause food to smell off, even when they may have grown to dangerous levels. So food could look and smell fine but still be harmful.”

“Best before” dates appear on foods that have a longer shelf life, such as biscuits, crisps and dried pulses. They indicate how long the food will be at its best quality for. Eating food past its “best before” date is unlikely to be harmful, unless it is eggs. Eggs come with “best before” rather than “use by” dates and, provided they’re cooked thoroughly, can be eaten up to a day or two after this date, but no later.

Products may often be labelled with “sell by” and “display until” dates, but these are not required by law and are used mainly for stock control purposes within shops. It is an offence for shops to sell food that is after the “use by” date’. However, retailers can sell food after the “best before” date provided the food is safe to eat.

In September 2011, a spokesperson from the FSA said that there is “a lot of confusion among customers about date marks” and stressed the importance of knowing the difference between them.

What are the risks from eating out-of-date food?

According to the FSA, there are over one million cases of food poisoning annually, with 20,000 hospitalisations and 500 related deaths each year. However, most people with food poisoning will get better without the need for any treatment. Occasionally though, food poisoning can cause more serious effects, particularly in pregnant women, young children and the elderly who can be more vulnerable to the effects of an infection.

Food causing people to feel ill is in most cases contaminated by bacteria such as salmonella or a virus such as norovirus. Symptoms of food poisoning usually begin one-to-three days after eating contaminated food and can include nausea (feeling sick), vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps.

Raw meat and poultry are particularly vulnerable to contamination if they are not handled, stored or cooked properly, as are “ready to eat” foods such as cooked sliced meats, pâté, soft cheeses and pre-packed sandwiches and dairy products, such as eggs and milk.

Proper storage of food reduces the risk of food poisoning, as does understanding and adhering to “use by” and “best before” dates and using leftovers safely. The FSA recommends that to store leftovers in the fridge, cool them first as quickly as possible (ideally within 90 minutes), cover them when they're in the fridge and eat them within two days. Leftovers should also be cooled before storing them in the freezer and should only be reheated once. Hot or warm food shouldn’t be placed directly into the fridge as it can raise the temperature inside the fridge.

Who sets food safety dates and how are they determined?

Food labelling is the responsibility of the company that labelled the food (this could be the seller, packer or maker). There are two date standards set by EU laws that are commonly used on foods:

  • A “use by” date relates to aspects of safety, and is legally required for highly perishable foods because harmful bugs can grow rapidly on them. It is against the law to sell a food after the “use by” date.
  • “Best before” dates are used for most foods and relate to quality, indicating how long the food will remain in best condition (in other words, until it goes stale). The “best before” is set by the manufacturer and assumes that the product is stored appropriately. In some circumstances, food can be sold after the “best before” date.

There is no definitive list of which foods should carry a particular type of date mark, and it is not clear how any of the dates are decided. Eggs and poultry have separate labelling systems, but these are also set by EU law.

Some foods are exempt from date labelling, including:

  • loose food
  • fresh whole fruit and vegetables, but not sprouting seeds
  • any alcoholic drink of 10% strength or more
  • pastries and bread normally consumed within 24 hours of production (from a bakery, for example)
  • vinegar, salt and solid sugar
  • chewing gum

In September 2011, the FSA published information designed to help the food industry decide whether products require a “use by” or “best before” date.

Where can I get more information?

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has more information on helping people to keep food safe and making their budget go further, including its “Your fridge is your friend” campaign.

Love Food Hate Waste is a partner of Food Safety Week and provides practical advice on helping people to waste less food.

Visit NHS Choices for more information on food poisoning and how to store food safely.

NHS Attribution