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Date labelling of food and drink
- 'Use by', 'Best before' etc

Notes

This page is not related to the main topics on the CharityBags website (although it does follow the same approach - of explaining an area of law affecting the public and describing the agencies involved in regulating it).  See the 'Unrelated web pages' page.

By the way, we're not world-experts in this subject, so treat what we say with caution.

 
It's easy to get confused about date marks on food - especially the rules (laws).  So we've made a few notes below - in case it helps.  This page deals with the law in the UK.
 

Food labels (our thanks to DEFRA)

No dates

Fresh fruit and vegetables

Some food and drink doesn't need to have dates.  Examples:

Dates

With food and drink that does need dates, the law specifies two types of date labelling :

  1. "Use by"
  2. "Best before" (=BB)

We describe each of these two types below . . .

1. 'Use by' dates

This is the crucial type of date labelling.  It applies to things which may cause serious food poisoning (and, in extreme cases, death) if you consume the product well past its date.

Examples:  meat, poultry, fish, dairy products (milk, cream, yoghurt, cheese), ready meals.

Most of these products contain a lot of animal protein and/or animal fat.

In the UK, "use by" indicates that:

2. 'Best before' (BB) dates

This labelling is used with products which are less perishable and less risky - such as:

"Best before" indicates that:

Preparing food
Chopping food

Unlike "use by" food, the law allows retailers to sell "best before" products after the "best before" date, so long as they're still healthy (even if they're 'stale').

Most "best before" food - such as bread - will keep for longer if it's stored in a fridge.  Also it will keep better if it's in air-tight enclosure (such as a sealed plastic bag or a plastic box).

"Best before end" (BBE) is used on "best before" products which are longer-lasting.
The "end" refers to a month or year - eg "Best before end of 2016".
Examples: Christmas cake, tinned food

The life of tinned food varies depending on the product.  Examples :

The US army has developed fresh sandwiches for troops in the field which last 3 years at room temperature.  They don't go mouldy because the packs are tightly sealed and all oxygen has been removed.

Display until (DU) / Sell by / Numbers in brackets - eg "(2)"

These three alternative markings have no legal significance.  They're an invention of retailers, to make it easier for employees to rotate stock and sell it off in good time.  Often, "display until" and "sell by" dates are two or three days before the "use by" or "best before" date on the pack.  Examples:

(2)

Numbers in brackets - eg "(2)" or "(7)".  These are a less obvious marking (coding) used by retailers (eg with bread).

Confusion:  Some shop staff get confused about the law on food dates.  For example, sometimes we've found food that's past its "display until" or "sell by" date, but it's on or before its "use by" date.  So it's perfectly legal to sell it.  We've offered to buy it (so long as the price is reduced).  However some staff have refused - maintaining (incorrectly) that it's illegal to sell it after its "display until" or "sell by" date.  They insist on binning the food - what a waste.  Government ministers have recognised this problem - and they've even contemplated banning the use of "display until" and "sell by" dates.

Don't confuse the law with retailers' own rules

On this page we're describing the law regarding food.  Don't confuse this with retailers' own rules.  For example, above we've explained that the law allows shops to sell "best before" products after the date stated (so long as they're still healthy).  However, most supermarket chains in the UK have a company policy of binning all food after this date.

We've seen packets of biscuits just past their "best before" date being sold on market stalls.  This is perfectly legal.  We enquired and found out that the suppliers didn't feel comfortable with selling them in their own shops, but they were happy to see them sold by the stall-holder (who got them cheaply).

Some loose fruit and veg in supermarkets now has labels on each item - eg oranges, apples. Some of these include a date.  However, this isn't a legal requirement.  The same applies to inedible garden plants in pots and cut flowers (roses, gladioli etc).

Related issues

"Use by" or "best before"?:  Many products neatly fit into one one category or the other. However, some are unclear.  For example, with yoghurts some manufacturers put a "use by" date on them - others put "best before" on them.  See the "Better regulation" report for more on this issue (there's a link to this below).

Egg

Eggs:  They're an oddity regarding dates (a hybrid).  Although they have "best before" dates, eggs have a lot in common with "use by" products such as meat and dairy items.
Under EU law, eggs must be sold at least one week before their "best before" date.
Beware - a raw egg (whether fresh or stale) can cause nasty food poisoning (because of Salmonella infection).
So, steer clear of recipes that suggest using raw eggs.
In the 1980s, a Junior Health Minister (Edwina Currie  ) had to resign (in 1988) over a controversy concerning salmonella in eggs.

Milk bottle (our thanks to Wikimedia and 'Unisouth')

Milk:  The date-rules and lasting-qualities vary - depending on the type of milk.  Fresh milk has "use by" dates.
The other types of milk listed below have "best before" dates :

By the way, fresh milk is called "pasteurised" (not pasture-ised).  It's named after Louis Pasteur - he was a Frenchman who (in 1862) invented a way of heat-treating food and drink in order to kill most of the harmful bacteria.

Rotation:  To reduce waste, shops carefully 'rotate' stock (so it's kept in sequence, 'flowing' like on a conveyor belt) :

Apple

Selling off elderly food - price reductions:  With food that's near its date, most supermarkets sell it off at a reduced price.  They choose a price which is low enough to sell all the stock before the closing date.  If they don't do this, some items will still be on their shelves after the closing date - and they'll have to throw them out (="waste" them) - especially with "use by" items.

With most shops, they reduce the prices in stages - for example, reducing by 10% initially (a day or two before the date), then reducing successively to (say) 50% and finally 90% off (in the last hour or two).  Although the revenue from the final reductions is less than the production cost of the products, it still pays the shop to sell them at this price.

By law, when shops add "reduced" labels, they must ensure that the date is still visible.  Also they need to ensure that the barcode for the original (full) price is deactivated (covered up) - otherwise the customer may be overcharged.

Offers and reduced-price goods:  With offers like "buy one, get one free" (=BOGOF), by law the offer applies to reduced goods (as well as full-price goods) - unless the retailer has a prominent notice nearby stating that special offers don't apply to reduced-price goods.

Recycling symbol

Taking (and eating) out-of-date food - freegans, foraging and bin diving:  When food has passed its date in a shop, they throw it out - putting it in large waste bins behind the store.  There's an ongoing controversy about whether the public can take out-of-date food legally from these waste bins - is it theft?  You can argue that it's waste and worth nothing to the retailer (in fact it costs them money to have it disposed of).  There's also a case for saying that taking (and eating) food from the bins that's still healthy helps the environment - making better use of resources (and reducing landfill).  See the Wikipedia page on Freeganism  

%

Percentage wastage:  When you see claims of the high percentage of food that is wasted by consumers (after purchase), bear in mind that some commentators muddle up unavoidable and avoidable wastage.  "Unavoidable wastage" means animal bones, potato peelings, banana skins, fruit stones, inedible stalks etc.  Probably over 10% of food (by weight) falls into this category.

Percentage overrun:  This is a useful rule of thumb for savvy consumers regarding food that exceeds its date (and whether you should eat it).  It's the ratio of :
  (a) the period elapsed after the "use by" or "best before" date, compared with
  (b) the period from manufacture (or delivery to the store) up to this date.
It's smart - because it's a "relative" figure that takes account of the life of the product.
Below we've given examples of % overrun for three products - all have exceeded their date by 8 days, but the implications are very different . . .  :

Type of food - raw or cooked:

Temperature of food when purchased:

Don't confuse cooking food with heating up food.
If you cook food (thoroughly), this will kill any bugs (bacteria etc).
However, if you just heat up food, it won't kill the bugs.

***

Freezing:  If you freeze products on or before the expiry date, normally you can ignore the date.

Example:  Let's say you buy meat that says "Use by 20 June 2012" and you keep it in a fridge.
Then you deep-freeze it on or before the "use by" date. 
Then you can keep it for months.  While in the freezer, the very cold temperature more-or-less stops any growth of harmful bacteria.
Then, when you unfreeze it (=defrost it), it will keep OK for several days (so long as you keep it in a fridge - ie chilled).  Treat it as if it were fresh meat.

Date markings

Year:  Some date markings only give the day and month (not the year).  With food that can be frozen, this is unhelpful and compromises food safety - because, if you freeze the product for a long time, you've got no indication of the year.
(However, you can get round this by writing the year on it yourself, before freezing it.)

Position of the date marking:  We're not aware of any legal requirement on this.  However, most retailers are helpful - they put the date in an obvious place - such as the front or top of the pack.  However, one popular brand of goats' milk puts the date on the back of the carton.  This is unhelpful - it compromises food safety.  For example it makes it more time-consuming for shop staff to check the dates and it increases the chance that out-of-date packs won't be spotted.

The size, colour and type of printing of date marks varies.  Some use dot-matrix printing - which can be difficult to read.  By the way, to avoid confusion, the law requires that the date components are stated in the following order: day, then month (or day, month, year).

With multipacks (eg yoghurt where 4 plastic pots are joined together) each container has a date on it - to help food safety.

Missing dates:  Occasionally, you'll see food packaging where the date hasn't been printed (due to a fault on the factory production line).  Strictly speaking, the food can't be sold legally.

Usually, a label is printed first, then the date mark is added to it later.  However, with a few tinned products the date is an integral part of the full-colour label.

Law and enforcement - TSDs and EHOs

Locally, issues regarding food labelling, dates, prices etc are mainly dealt with by trading standards departments (TSDs) of councils.

Locally, issues regarding the health (safety) of food are mainly dealt with by environmental health officers (EHOs) of councils.

4261

Printed codes indicating date of production

Food and drink cans etc often have these codes.  A common system is to indicate the year with one digit, followed by the day-of-the-year (as three digits).  Sometimes this is followed by the time.

Example:  "4261 17:37"
- This indicates year 2014, day 261 of the year, time 17:37

Using this code, you can work out how old the product is when you see it in the shop.

Also, it's useful (once you've purchased the product) if you later find you can't read the "best before" date (eg it's missing or smudged).

One of the reasons for adding production dates is that manufacturers can use them as batch codes - so that, if there's problem (like contamination), they can warn customers.

Computer circuit board
Computer circuit board

By the way, computer chips (eg Intel, AMD, Samsung) use a similar system of codes - except it's done as two digits for the year, then two digits for the week of production.
Example: "1237" - indicating year 2012, week 37.

Dates on non-food items

There are three types of date :

Increasingly, dates are being used on non-food items - such as toothpaste, cosmetics, batteries, smoke alarms, car tyres and inkjet cartridges. 
However, usually it's not a legal requirement to have a date on these products.

Period-after-opening symbol (PAO)
'30M' PAO symbol

With cosmetics, there's an international (EU) symbol - a diagram of a round jar with a half-open lid and the recommended life (after the product has been opened) - eg "30M" (meaning 30 months).  It's known as the Period-after-opening symbol (PAO).
See the Wikipedia   page on this.

We've seen "expiry" dates on office stationery - on packs of envelopes with self-seal (self-adhesive) flaps.  Other stationery items which deteriorate include self-adhesive labels, Sellotape-type sticky tape and rubber bands.  Also, some bio-degradable polythene bags have a date mark.

One of us bought some 'Prestige' brand saucepans.  These had the date of manufacture stamped on the copper base.  Apparently this was because they had a 10-year guarantee - and it enabled the company to know how old the product was if you claimed on the guarantee.

There's been a controversy about one unethical (?) manufacturer of inkjet printers - who has designed their printer electronics so they won't work with ink cartridges which have passed their "expiry"date.

Other types of labelling on food and drink

There are sophisticated rules regarding other types of labelling, such as :

Date labelling - useful links

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
www.defra.gov.uk  

Food Standards Agency logo

Food Standards Agency (FSA)
www.food.gov.uk  

Trading Standards Institute (TSI) - food labelling page:
www.tradingstandards.gov.uk/advice/advice-business-fdlabelling.cfm  

Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH)
www.cieh.org  

Health Protection Agency (HPA)
www.hpa.org.uk  

NHS 'Food and diet' pages:
www.nhs.uk/LiveWell/Goodfood/Pages/Goodfoodhome.aspx  

Report: "Better Regulation of ‘Use by’ Date Labelled Foods" (2011, 32 pages):
www.bis.gov.uk/assets/brdo/docs/publications-2011/11-1474-use-by-dates-report.pdf  

'Food Manufacture' - a UK trade magazine (and website), published by William Reed:
www.foodmanufacture.co.uk  

US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - Food Labelling Guide:
www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/ GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/FoodLabelingGuide/ucm064904.htm  


Food labels (our thanks to DEFRA)