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  • Diane Johnson RNutr

So... what do the dates on food really mean...?

Updated: Aug 20, 2019


“Best Before Date”

There are two shelf life dates for labelling foodstuffs. The quality date label is the "Best Before" label which is exactly what it means. This usually applies to dry goods and sometimes fruits and vegetables. Biscuits, crisps, flour, spices and packeted food are all given a best before date.

The quality issues usually surround texture, intensity of flavour, or maybe both. It is not a safety issue, so this does not mean it would be unsafe to eat. As a result of concerns for food waste and the environmental impact on this waste, best before dates have been removed from some fresh items such as fruit and vegetables to prevent consumers discarding them unnecessarily. Instead we need to be mindful of how much we are likely to consume when shopping and using a plan of meals for the week and avoiding unnecessary impulse purchases that are unlikely to be eaten. There is also a case for having a good idea of when some fruit and veg is usable. A crisp fresh apple is lovely eaten as it is but if it has gone past the very crisp stage it could be the basis of a great sauce or dessert.

“Use by Dates”

The use by date is the date that should always be followed as it is issued to foods based on the expected safe shelf life for that food. It is illegal for food dated beyond the use by date to be sold. The reason for this is that there are some food poisoning bacteria capable of multiplying at low oxygen levels and low fridge temperatures. As a result of these bacterial characteristics the length of time these foods are kept is limited by the use by date. Listeria Monocytogenes is an example of bacteria that may be implicated with these foods. This bacteria may be familiar as it is linked to many foods recommended to avoid during pregnancy. It can cause listeriosis which is dangerous for the mother and unborn baby. It may also cause problems for other vulnerable groups, such as the young, elderly or unwell

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Foods that display use by dates include fresh and ready prepared foodstuffs, for example raw and cooked meats, pates, ready meals, poultry, fish and soft cheeses. For the same reason ready prepared salads, fruits, and sandwiches require a use by date. Following dates and storing at the correct temperature should mean consumers can safely use the food, and following the advisory list of foods to avoid, for mums-to-be, should ensure good food safety practice to protect everyone.

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