Food labelling - best before and use by
We want to help you understand why different dates and descriptions are used on food labels, when they are used, and when you should not buy or eat the food in question. If you are a trader we can help you decide when to use different labels.
What is the law?
Nearly all pre-packed foodstuffs are required to be marked with either a 'best before' or 'use by' date. The exceptions to this rule are fresh fruit and vegetables, wine, alcohol, vinegar, salt and sugar.
The Food Labelling Regulations lay down rules for all aspects of any food label. It can often be complicated and difficult to understand so they aim to make labels on food clear.
Use By and Best Before dates tell you how long the food will last, unopened, before you should eat it. They must also be given with instructions for storage to help you (unless this is clear anyway)
Best Before means the food should not have significantly deteriorated before the date given. The date will usually be a particular day such as "Best Before 30 MAY 2011". It may not include the year. You will also see "Best Before End", but this will then only show a month and year, so "Best Before End 05 2011".This is for food with a longer shelf life.
There may be a note saying "keep refrigerated" or "keep in a cool dry place", you should do this. Also, if told to "keep refrigerated after opening" you should do so, and remember that once opened, the food will not last as long.
It is generally safe to eat food after a Best Before date, and (except for eggs) food can still be sold legally after that date, though it may not still be good to eat.
Download: More information on best before labelling for traders (pdf, 19 KB) (opens new window)
Use By is an instruction. It must be used for food which is highly perishable and likely to be harmful if eaten after it has spoiled. It is the date when the food will be reliably safe to eat.
It must always give a particular date "Use By 22 MARCH" and may include the year too; "Use by 22 03 2011". There will be instructions for storage with a "Use By" date too, but these will almost always be to "keep refrigerated". Remember - it is important to get food back into refrigeration as soon as possible after buying it, try not to shop at lunchtime if you can't get cold items to the fridge before evening.
It is an offence to sell food after the "Use By" date.
Download: More information on use by labelling for traders (pdf, 11 KB) (opens new window)
You may see "Sell By" or "Display Until" on some packs. These are not legal, required dates and are meant to be instructions for in-store staff. For fresh fruit and vegetables these may be the only dates shown, as they usually do not need a "Best Before" date. On other foods it may be in addition to the "Use By" or "Best Before" date shown