Is it safe to eat food past its expiry date?

Woman holding pack of food from fridge to check use-by date. (Getty Images)
You might want to think again before eating food in your fridge that's past its use-by date. (Getty Images)

Nearly two-fifths (38%) of households bought discounted food products that were nearing their expiry dates in April, according to Barclays.

Also known as yellow sticker items, their reduced price often makes for an appealing choice during a cost of living crisis.

But is it actually safe to eat food products about to go off, and how long can you leave it for?

Understanding food date labels

Being aware of the difference between the two main types of food date labels is more important than you might think.

You'll usually either see a 'use-by' date, which relates to food safety, or a 'best before date', which relates to food quality.

Read more: Woman who went from spending £100 on her food shop to under £10 shares her cost-cutting tips

Close up of a man shopping in a supermarket while on a budget. He is looking for low prices due to inflation. He is living in the North East of England and is picking up a turnip.
The use-by date and best before date of food products have a very important difference. (Getty Images)

Can you eat food past its use-by date?

If you're going to pay attention to anything, make it the use-by date, as this tells you for sure when a product expires.

"This is the most important date to remember. *Never eat food after the use-by date, even if it looks and smells ok, as it could make you very ill," advises the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

So, if you feel like chancing something that's past its use-by date, don't. The food is safe to eat up until midnight on the date shown.

*The one exception, however, is if you have already cooked the food before its use-by. You can then cool it and keep it in the fridge, as cooking kills any pathogens in the food and buys you a little more time. You must eat it within 48 hours though, or freeze it to eat later.

If freezing the food, make sure you do it within its expiry date.

To ensure the use-by date stays as accurate as possible after your original purchase, you should also follow any storage instructions correctly. "And remember, you cannot smell the bacteria which make you ill," the FSA reiterates.

Use-by dates are often found on foods that go off quickly, like meats or salads.

Read more: Seven ways to reduce your carbon 'foodprint' to save the planet

Concerned Woman Looking At Pre Packaged Meat
Foods past their use-by date are no longer safe to eat. (Getty Images)

Can you eat food past its best before date?

This one is more down to your own judgement.

"After the best before date listed on a product, the food will be safe to eat but may not be at its best," details the FSA.

You may choose to use the 'sniff test' for foods with a best before date, for example smelling something or looking for mould, to decide whether it's still okay. This is not appropriate for foods with a use-by date, as explained above.

The best before date may be found on frozen foods like peas and chips, dried foods like pasta and rice, tinned foods like baked beans and canned tomatoes or cheese, and – again – will only be accurate if stored correctly.

So, next time you're wondering whether the 'use-by' date is just there for precaution, remind yourself that it's really jus there to tell you what you need to know. Don't eat those last couple of slices of ham, even if they are just a day old.

But if your milk is only past its best before date, you might still be good to go if it hasn't soured.

Watch: Almost one in five UK adults eating food past its use-by date, ONS survey finds