What do the different food labels mean?

A large amount of everyday food waste could be avoided if consumers knew what the date labels on food products actually meant. There seems to be some confusion amongst many (including ourselves) as to what the different dates mean, and often leads to unnecessary food waste that could’ve been avoided. The ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ labels are required by a law passed by the European Parliament in 2000, however the ‘display until’ or ‘sell by’ labels are not regulated and are simply put in place to help the retailers with stock control.

Use By

The ‘use by’ date is one that is required by law for producers to place on the label for foods that are considered highly perishable, such as raw meat, fish, eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables.

It is illegal to sell these foods after the ‘use by’ date, and consumers should not consume these products after the marked date, for health and safety reasons, even if the product looks and smells fine.

Best Before

The ‘best before’ date, which is also required by law to be displayed on products, is an indicator of the quality of the food in terms of its taste, texture, aroma and appearance. If stored according to the package guidelines, the product will be at its best in these areas until the day after the ‘best before’ date.

Food should be safe for some time after the ‘best before’ date, however it begins to slowly diminish in quality from this day forward. Food retailers are legally allowed to sell products after their ‘best before’ date, however they must meet certain EU expectations.

Display Until/Sell By

‘Display Until’ and ‘Sell By’ labels are not required by law, and are simply used as a guide for food retailers and their employees to help with stock rotation. The problem with these dates is that many consumers (we’re guilty of this ourselves unfortunately!) don’t look at the name above the date, and see that the product is passed the date and immediately throw it away. Unfortunately, almost all of these instances are times when products that were just fine for consumption were thrown into the garbage.


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