Still using the sniff test to decide whether to toss last week’s chicken in the wok or in the bin? Well, it's time to brush up on your date-label dexterity.
Whether they’re printed on the twany, speckled shells of your free-range eggs, or those sticky yellow labels that seal loaves of seeded granary, dates abound in your kitchen.
And while some people prefer to freewheel around them, it pays – as with the romantic kind – to follow a few rules.
Happily, these are much simpler to break down.
Okay. So what's the difference between 'use by', 'best before' & 'sell by'?
In the UK, you’ll find three kinds of date labels on food: ‘use by’, ‘best before’ and ‘display until’ (or ‘sell by’).
Use-by dates are there for safety reasons, which is why they’re found on foods that can go off quickly and consequently carry a food-poisoning risk after a short period, such as meat, eggs and bagged salad.
A 2016 University of Leicester study showed that while salad can carry salmonella bacteria, the bag makes it much worse.
This label is worth obeying regardless of whether a product passes the sniff test or not; those harmful microbes won’t always make themselves known by way of a nasty whiff.
Best-before dates (the ones you’ll usually find on cashews, bags of penne and packets of Hobnobs) relate to food quality – taste, smell and appearance – so you can be a little more cavalier. As long as you’ve stored your food correctly – eg. Keeping your cereals in a cool, dry place – eating it after its best-before date should be safe. It might not taste or look its best, though.
While food manufacturers are required under EU law to put a use-by or best-before date on their products, sell-by and display-until dates don’t have any legal basis, they’re merely used by retailers to help with stock rotation and can therefore be ignored.
The problem is that most people don’t know this, which contributes to tons of perfectly edible food being tossed every day.
In fact, research from the Waste and Resources Action Programme – WRAP to its friends – suggests that almost 20% of the food Brits buy ends up in the bin, and in a third of cases it’s because consumers have misinterpreted the date label, thinking the food has gone off when it hasn’t.
Since 2017, WRAP has been campaigning to reduce date label confusion by encouraging manufacturers to move from a use-by date to a best-before where safe to do so – eg, with cheese and pasteurised juices – and to axe the use of multiple date labels.
Right. So how do I prevent food waste?
Regulatory change can be frustratingly slow. So what can you, as a conscientious consumer wanting to reduce food waste, do right now?
First, don’t try to solve the problem by investigating first hand the consequences of playing fast and loose with use-by dates.
Although foods like meat and fish are likely to pose a higher risk than hard cheese or bread, the bottom line from the Food Standards Agency is not to eat, cook or freeze past this point.
In this instance, as with many, it pays to prep.
Be mindful when shopping of what meals you’re going to prepare and when – and tighten up your storage habits.
Set a reminder on your phone to sort through your fridge weekly, wrap up open packets and bring the oldest food to the front of the fridge so it gets used first.
While you’re sorting, note the use-by dates on food and plan when to eat them.
And if you’re not going to get round to using them because, er, Deliveroo, then wrap, label and freeze.
Got it? Good.
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