Should we abolish the ‘best-before’ date?

By Amanda Johnson 18/04/2011

Food waste has been headline news in the UK over the weekend, with the Telegraph reporting that the ‘best-before’ dates on food packaging are set to be scrapped in a drive by ministers to stop millions of tonnes of food being thrown away each year. And this issue has hit the front pages here too today, with the lead story in The Herald looking at whether ‘best before’ labels should be removed from food.

The Telegraph article says:

’Instead of marking food “best before” a certain date, retailers will in future have to produce labels which give details of the health risks associated with individual foods that remain on shelves or in the fridge for a lengthy period before being consumed.

Prawns and eggs, for example, would be more likely, under the new guidelines, to carry detailed warnings of potential risks of food poisoning if they were eaten after a certain date.

Bread, however, where risks would be minimal, would carry much simpler labels.’

An article in the UK newspaper The Mail suggests such measures would save six billion pounds a year.

The Mail reports that research by British supermarket chain Morrisons found that 55 percent of people will throw away an item that is past its ‘best-before’ date, despite the fact it is safe to eat.

Apparently, though, the ‘use-by’ dates on food packaging in the UK will be kept.

So, what exactly is a ‘best-before’ date and how does it differ from a ‘use-by’ date?  There is a nice explanation on the Ministry of Consumer Affairs website but basically the’ use-by’ date shows how long the food can be safely kept as long as the storage instructions are followed. It is illegal to sell a food that has passed its ‘use-by’ date.

A ‘best-before’ date relates to the quality of food — it gives you an indication of when the food will be at an optimal quality and nutritional value, and is not a safety issue.

Packaged food with a shelf-life of less than two years must have a date mark. Once a food is opened, storage instructions on the pack should be followed to ensure quality and safety.

I think there is confusion about the difference between ‘best-before’ and ‘use-by’ dates and often people don’t always know the difference between the two. It’s certainly something I have been asked about on many occasions. And the NZFSA report in a video clip on their website that most consumers in New Zealand are not exactly sure what date marking means.

Personally I find both ‘best-before’ and ‘use-by’ dates useful. I like to know when food is at its optimal quality and I do tend to make sure that foods in our household are used before the ‘best-before’ date. I think we probably do need clearer information on food labels though to inform people when food is at optimal quality and when food is unsafe and should be discarded. In particular, this kind of information is important for those more vulnerable members of our community (pregnant women, children, and older people) where food safety is a paramount concern — along with the standard advice on the four Cs.

It’ll be interesting to see what sort of coverage this issue gets in New Zealand, and whether the Government here will look at a similar strategy to change the labelling of our foods. In the meantime, if you want some advice on reducing food waste, check out, developed by the Ministry for the Environment.

0 Responses to “Should we abolish the ‘best-before’ date?”

  • An interesting topic Amanda.

    Call me cynical, but I can’t help but wonder if this is a ploy for supermarkets to keep stock on their shelves longer and reduce their waste.

    I find best before & use by dates quite useful. If they were only concerned about food wastage all they would have to do is keep the current system and provide consumers with a guide as to when such food becomes really unsafe.

    I don’t understand why the whole system needs to be redesigned where a simple education programme would fix the problem of consumer waste.

  • I find the current best before / use by scheme just fine. Most introductory cookbooks explain the basics of food storage and what keeps for how long, etc. Also, don’t some fridge/freezer doors feature a summarised version? If the current scheme really needs extends, wouldn’t just ensuring that the date-limiting ingredients are listed in the ingredients be enough, and isn’t that already the case for all practical purposes?

  • I also think the current system is fine. I do agree though with Michael – a simple education system so people understand the diffence between best-before and use-by is probably needed, given the current confusion. Personally I like to have both dates available so we can eat food at it’s optimum, but we know when it becomes unsafe to eat.

  • Personally I like to have both dates available

    Me too – meant to say it and forgot to mention it!

    (‘extension’ for ‘extends’ – I re-worked the wording and didn’t pick that one up.)

  • I agree with the fact that changing “use-by” dates by “best before” dates won’t make any difference unless people really understand the difference.
    From a safety point of view, some products should always have a use-by date, but on the other hand there are products which have use-by dates, which are safe to be consumed after the expiry date, such as yoghurt…