‘Best before’ and ‘sell by’ dates – what’s the difference?

Confusion about the difference between best before dates and sell-by-dates still hampers supermarket customers from making informed choices. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Confusion about the difference between best before dates and sell-by-dates still hampers supermarket customers from making informed choices. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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CONFUSION around food freshness dates means that the UK throws away 7.2m tonnes of food and drink per year, with much of that total still perfectly edible. Here’s a guide to help you keep hold of your fresh food for longer

While some people are eager to clear out the fridge at any opportunity, others will valiantly hold onto every last item until the mould begins to set in. Can all out-of-date foods harm you?

The short answer is “no”, as the main problem with retail packaging is the lack of understanding surrounding the terms used to categorise food. Unclear definitions and regulations surrounding the labelling of food result in an average of £470 of unspoilt items heading to the bin per Scottish household.

According to the NHS, the use by date is the most important one of all. Foods that contain very fresh ingredients, such as salads or smoked fish, should not be eaten after this date has passed as they are highly likely to give you food poisoning.

You can extend the life of foods stored in fridges by freezing them, which allows you to consume them after the use by date once they have sufficiently thawed. Bear in mind, though, that the storage instructions for each piece of food must be obeyed if they tell you otherwise.

Best before dates, on the other hand, merely relate to the quality of the food, indicating that they won’t taste as good if eaten after a certain date. With a recent study showing that 13 per cent of Britons don’t know the difference between the two dates, it’s not hard to see why so much is wasted.

Other confusing terms you may have seen on your food are “display until” and “sell by”. These terms are designed for the benefit of shop staff only in order to rotate stock, so customers are advised by the Food Standards Agency to ignore these when shopping.

Environmental organisation Love Food Hate Wastehas handy food preservation tips on their website and also offers ways for people to save money with economical recipes.

Our own tips to help you cut down on wasted food are brought to you by several top chefs.

What do you do to try and minimise your food wastage?