What is the difference between Best Before and Use by Dates? Have you always been confused by this?

What is the difference between Best Before and Use by Dates? Have you always been confused by this?

Shelf life and food labeling

Shelf life refers to the period when a food product is able to maintain its desirable and acceptable characteristics under given handling and storage conditions. These desirable and acceptable characteristics often relate to product quality and product safety. They can be microbiological, physical, or chemical in nature. Overall, labels on food provide a lot of information to the consumer regarding the food. For example, labels show information regarding nutrition, ingredients in the food, and a host of dates.

What is the difference between Best Before and Use by dates? There is usually a common confusion when it comes to the meaning of the various dates found in food and other product labels. However, the differences are indeed clear, and simple to remember once grasped. Understanding the difference in these dates is critical, especially when it comes to food products. This is because food may indeed contain bacteria. Such food, when stored for too long outside the recommended temperature, can lead to food poisoning. It is thus vital to understand what respective date labels written on food products each mean to shelf life.

Who decides if a product requires a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date?

The food business operator (usually the manufacturer or producer) attaching a label to a food product is responsible for deciding whether a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date is required for declaration of its shelf-life.

When should this decision be taken?

The decision as to whether a food requires a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date should be taken when the food manufacturer or producer is developing their food safety management system, based on HACCP principles, for the product. It is strongly recommended that the food manufacturer or producer document this process.

Food business operators who receive bulk food product and subsequently break it down and repackage it, are now responsible for ensuring that the information provided relating to this product, including its shelf-life, is correct and in line with current legisislation.

If changes are made to the information provided, for example the ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date, these may only be made provided such modifications do not mislead the final consumer or otherwise reduce the level of consumer protection and the possibilities for the final consumer to make informed choices. The FBOs are responsible for any changes they make to the food information accompanying a food.

Do all foods require a shelf-life declaration?

No, a shelf-life declaration i.e. a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date, is not required for the following foods:

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables, including potatoes, which have not been peeled, cut or similarly treated. However, this does not apply to sprouting seeds and similar products such as legume sprouts which do require a date of minimum durability
  • 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 
  • Vinegar
  • Cooking salt
  • Solid sugar
  • Confectionery products consisting almost solely of flavoured and/or coloured sugars
  • Chewing gums and similar chewing products.

Importance of food labels

Food labels are very important to our wellbeing and health. They guarantee and reveal to us that the food we buy is indeed what we think it is, and that among others, product nutrition is as we think and desire. Food labels are therefore important for the following reasons:

  1. Keep healthy

Food labels help you to understand the composition of the food in terms of calories, vitamins, fats, and minerals, etc. Knowing these, you can ensure to eat the kinds of food good for your individual health situation.  Labels moreover help you to monitor your micronutrient intake, thereby avoiding deficiencies, particularly the common ones such as Vitamin D and iron.  You can also monitor your saturated fat and calorie intake, enabling you to monitor your weight. Furthermore, you can tell from the labels the sugar and salt content of the food, and decide accordingly as suits your balanced diet demands. These actions generally help you to keep healthy and prevent lifestyle illnesses, such as diabetes and certain heart conditions.

  1. Ensure food safety

Most people these days fall sick and many others die from eating food contaminated with viruses, disease pathogens, toxins, and harmful chemicals. Labels however provide vital warnings and critical information regarding food product use, including how to store, and how to cook. All these are vital to keeping your food safe.

  1. Safeguards from counterfeits

One of the main aims of labeling food is to prevent fraud. Were there no labels that are internationally guaranteed, it would be easier for food sellers to mislead consumers intentionally through false representation on food packaging. However, with labels, you buy what the label claims.

  1. Avoid harmful reactions due to detected ingredients

Allergens contained in some food are very harmful to many people. The 14 main Allergens in foods in the UK comprise of soya, milk, fish, eggs, cereals (containing glutens), tree nuts, peanuts, sulphites, milk, molluscs, mustard, lupin, celery and crustaceans. Knowing the ingredients that are in a product helps you to choose those you can eat and not suffer from allergic reactions, some of whose severity can be life-threatening. Through food labels, you can tell which food to eat and which to avoid.

  1. Helps you avoid food wastage

When read correctly, food labels help you to avoid wasting food. Markings indicating dates on food labels reveal information regarding how long the food product is safe and desirable for you to eat. This is particularly vital to avoiding food poisoning due to expired food. On the downside, most people confuse labeled dates, particularly “best before” and “use by”, often contributing, albeit unintentionally to food waste. About 10 percent of food in Europe goes to waste due to confusing the date labels. Understanding the difference between date labels, particularly “best before” and “use by” dates on food is vital.

What is the difference between Best Before and Use by Dates?

Many cannot differentiate between ‘best before dates’ and ‘use by dates’, but the differences are actually obvious. The following are some key differences.

Best before dates” indicate the quality of the food as opposed to its safety.  It is the date during when food products retain their specific properties such as aroma, taste and appearance, including specific qualities of the products such as the nutrient content, provided the foodstuff is stored appropriately and the package remains unopened. Typically, a ‘best before’ date is used for food products such as canned, dried, ambient, frozen foods etc. Many foods that are past their ‘best before’ date may be safe to eat, but their quality may have deteriorated.

Meanwhile, the “Use by date” indicates the period when a food product is safe to eat upon correct storage.In the case of foods, which from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health, the date of minimum durability must be replaced by the ‘use by’ date. The ‘use by’ is the date up until which a food may be used safely i.e. consumed, cooked or processed, once it has been stored correctly. After the “use by date”, eating the marked food exposes one to food poisoning. You should not cook, eat or freeze the food after the “use by date”, whether or not it smells or looks fine.

In addition, “Best before dates” are typically marked on food products that do not need freezing or refrigeration. Bread, dry pasta, fruits and vegetables, tined products and raw rice are examples of such foods. Conversely, “use by dates” are marked on meat and dairy foods, as well as ready-to-eat foods, such as salads, chilled foods, yogurt, meat, milk, and unpasteurised juices, etc.  

In addition, you can extend the life of a foodstuff by freezing it before its “use by date”. However, you cannot increase the life of food after its “best before date”.


Date labels are a critical guide to how long you can keep food before its quality deteriorates and before it becomes unsafe for you to eat. It is important to emphasize that you can still eat food product that is past its ‘best before date’, although with its quality deteriorated. However, products that are past their ‘use by dates’ are unsafe to eat. The responsibility to mark the ‘best before” and the “use by dates” on food is for the supplier. The supplier should also indicate the specific storage conditions that consumers can subject the food product until the marked “best before” or “use by date”. However, it is the responsibility of the consumer to pay attention to, read and adhere to the marked use by and best before expiry dates. I hope this article has made things more clearer for you and now you understand What is the difference between Best Before and Use by dates?

To ensure your staff are adequately trained and fully understand the differences between the two, why not take a look at our available Food Safety Courses



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