‘Use by’, ‘best before’, ‘display until’ – what’s the difference and why does it matter?
30 March 2021 |
Roy Betts, Fellow
A recent poll
by the Food Standards Agency revealed that 44% of adults view ‘use by’ dates as a ‘useful guide’ – not realising the potential health risks
of getting food poisoning, which could make them or their family seriously ill.
The new finding shines a light on the larger issue of date mark confusion. We’re all aware of the various date marks t
hat appear on food labels, such as ‘use-by’ and ‘display until’, but there are still many who are uncertain about what each of them means.
As a key part of labelling legislation, it’s important to have a good
understanding of date marks, which is why I teamed up with our experienced
food law advisory team
at Campden BRI to provide you with the most accurate and up-to-date information surrounding this area.
There are some date marks that are required by law. Referred to as ‘durability indications’ in legislation, these
date marks include ‘best before’, ‘best before end’ and ‘use by’. Let’s look at what they mean and how they are different from each other.
‘Best before’ – relating to quality
‘Best before’ or ‘best before end’ dates relate to the quality of the food. Foods with this type of indication are
safe to eat after the specified date but may not be at their best. For instance, the flavour or texture might not be as it was when the food
was first manufactured. ‘Best before’ dates appear on a wide range of foods including frozen, dried and tinned. The ‘Best before’ date is
only accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the packaging.
‘Use by’ – relating to safety
A ‘use by’ date is about safety and is applied to foods that, from a microbiological point of view, are highly
perishable. If consumed after the date, there is a risk that the food will be unsafe and could cause illness. Foods can be eaten until the
‘use by’ date but not afterwards and the storage instructions provided must also be carefully followed. Foods that display ‘use by’ dates
are those that quickly become unsafe, such as fresh meat or ready-to-eat salads.
It is a legal requirement that where a ‘use by’ date is displayed, it must be followed by a description of the storage
conditions that must be observed to keep the food safely for the specified duration - for example ‘store in a refrigerator’. For ‘best before’
indications, instructions on how to store the food are required where special storage conditions are needed to retain the quality of the product,
such as ‘store in a dry place, protect from heat’. These storage conditions, for both ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ labelled foods are therefore
legal requirements to enable consumers to store the products correctly before the packaging is opened; such information should follow the
Where consumers may get confused
Other date or duration information that is presented on food labels can cause confusion for consumers, but again
some of it is legally required. It is a legal requirement, for example, to provide food storage instructions for when the pack has been
opened and where foods require special storage conditions, such as ‘once opened use within 2 days.’ The wording of such indications is,
however, not specified. Particular foods, such as frozen meat, frozen meat preparations (e.g. burgers and sausages) and frozen unprocessed
fish must be labelled with the date of freezing, using the wording ‘frozen on.’
Indications such as ‘display until’ are not legally required but may be included on food labels to aid stock rotation
in retail establishments.
Date marks and the law
Current EU harmonised labelling legislation (Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to
consumers, as amended), which has been retained into UK legislation since the start of 2021 when the EU exit transition period ended, requires
most foods to carry either a ‘use by’ or ‘best before’/‘best before end’ date. It is an offence to sell food after the ‘use by’ date, however,
food with an expired ‘best before’ or ‘best before end’ date can still be offered for sale.
Products that do not have to display a date mark
The legislation provides a list of products that do not have to carry a date mark (unless product-specific provisions apply), these include:
- fresh fruit and vegetables, including potatoes, which have not been peeled, cut or similarly treated (this derogation shall not apply to
sprouting seeds and similar products such as legume sprouts);
- wines, liqueur wines, sparkling wines, aromatised wines, and similar products obtained from fruit other than grapes, and beverages falling
within CN code 2206 00 obtained from grapes or grape musts;
- beverages containing 10% or more by volume of alcohol;
- bakers’ or pastry cooks’ wares which, given the nature of their content, are normally consumed within 24 hours of their manufacture;
- cooking salt;
- solid sugar;
- confectionery products consisting almost solely of flavoured and/or coloured sugars;
- chewing gums and similar chewing products.
These foods are considered safe either due to an inherent ability to resist microbial growth due to certain physical
attributes, such as low pH (vinegar) or low water activity (salt, sugar), a naturally short shelf-life (baked goods) or the fact that spoilage
is noticeable and not a safety issue (uncut fresh fruit and vegetables).
‘Use by’ or ‘best before’ – which is it?
It’s important that all food business operators (FBOs) understand the reason they are using either a ‘use by’ or
‘best before’ indication. This decision must be based on the type of product, its ingredients and the processing that it has been subjected
to. If an FBO decides to use a ‘best before’ date, then they must be certain that there is no risk to consumers if the product is eaten after
the specified date (and that means any time period after the end of the date). If a ‘use by’ date is displayed, FBOs must have a valid reason
for using that date, and that usually means obtaining and holding data that validates why that date is used.
We’re often approached by FBOs who’d like us to investigate their foods (often by looking at the
microbiological activity) to help them determine the
shelf-life of their products. It’s a complex topic that’s often evolving, which is
why our experts recently aligned our shelf-life evaluation guidance document with
recent changes in this area.
Catch 22: date marking, consumer preference, high quality and food waste
There’s a bit of a balancing act for manufacturers when it comes to date marking. Conflicting needs from several
areas can make putting in place a date mark no easy task. For example, health bodies want less salt, sugar and saturated fat in products to
improve consumer health, however some of these ingredients can help to preserve foods, providing a longer life and, in some cases, inhibit
Further considerations come from the wants and needs of the consumers: many want high-quality fresher foods and clean
labels. There’s also the push to reduce food waste driven by organisations such as WRAP. This may be helped by using a longer shelf-life so
consumers have more time to consume foods at home, meaning less would be thrown away.
The food safety risk
As can be seen from the above, there are many conflicting issues when it comes to defining the shelf-life of a food.
Reducing preservatives (to achieve clean label products) may well reduce shelf-life; consumers want fresher foods and may see longer life as
‘less fresh’, yet the push to reduce waste demands longer shelf-lives. In some cases, it may prompt a move from using ‘use by’ to ‘best
before’ on some products (with food safety in mind of course).
The primary and critical decision must always be one of food safety. We must never increase consumer health risks by
our move towards less preserved, longer life products or by a switch to using ‘best before’ rather than ‘use-by’ dates.
These decisions must only be made after rigorous risk assessments and in many cases obtaining scientific
evidence that changes are valid, supported by good science, and do not increase consumer
So where are we now?
All in all, there’s a lot for FBOs to consider when it comes to date marks. Food producers may need help in defining
good, safe date codes that optimise shelf-life, so that foods are economic to produce and less likely to become waste. Ultimately, the number
one priority is, and always has been, to have date codes that ensure the safety of the product for consumers.
We work extensively helping food producers define the best shelf-life date code type to use. We can
optimise ‘use-by’ dates, help manufacturers determine shelf-life data once the packaging
has been opened and back up shelf-lives with required data to ensure foods have a long life but always remain safe to consume. Our
regulatory team can also help you in this area. If you have any questions, please drop me a
Our guideline document on determining shelf-life, that is backed by expert advice and practical shelf-life assessment,
has recently been updated and is now available to purchase.
Roy Betts is a Fellow at Campden BRI, an independent international food consultancy and research organisation based in the UK.
Guideline 46 (second edition) now available
Our guideline document on determining shelf-life, that is backed by expert advice and practical
shelf-life assessment, has recently been updated and is now available to purchase.
How can we help you?
If you’d like to find out more about your product’s shelf-life, contact our support team to find
out how we can help.