#LoveFood: Deciphering dates on products (“use by”, “best before”, “display until”)

How often have you wondered if you should be chucking away an egg past its “best before” date or a few biscuits whose “best before date” was a week ago?

“Use by” dates are used on perishable foods such as packaged salad, meat, fresh fish and poultry. It is the last date recommended for using the food. “Use by” dates relate to food safety and the NHS advises “don’t use any food or drink after the end of the use by date on the label, even if it looks and smells fine”. This is erring on the side of caution and naturally the NHS needs to make such recommendations. However, experience shows that there are foods that can be consumed after their “use by” dates. Just a few examples:

  • Packaged salad: as long as the leaves aren’t mouldy, you can eat it by reviving wilted leaves in ice cold water.
  • Cucumber: the same treatment as above-cut the end that is dry and immerse the rest in icy water.
  • Yogurt: if the container is sealed and at the recommended temperature in the fridge, it will last longer than its “use by” date.

Obviously you need to use common sense, we are all different and some of us, due to medical conditions or a bad experience will prefer to be extra cautious and respect the “use by” dates with rigour. If you have food approaching its “use by” date and don’t want to take any chances, you can always cook and store it so that it can last a bit longer. For example, if you cook a Bolognese (to accompany spaghetti) with your minced meat, this will keep in the fridge for about 3 days or you can always freeze it to use later.

Another tip I have is to look for produce with longer “use by” dates at the point of buying. For example, when you buy milk look for the bottles with longer “use by” dates at the back of the shelf.

One last point about “use by” dates is that you can actually freeze the products up to that date. Yes, often they say “freeze on day of purchase” which is simultaneously logical and absurd. Logical because the earlier you freeze it, probably the best as the product will likely have better quality. Absurd because let’s say the “use by date” is 15th March and you bought it on the 14th of March – what about the days it has been sitting on the shelf beforehand? We have no way of knowing when the product was put on the shelf so why is the undetermined “day of purchase” so important? Does the product know when it was bought and will suddenly perish on that account? Some supermarkets have acknowledged this by replacing “freeze on day of purchase” with “freeze before the use by day”.

“Best before” dates refer to the quality of food and not food safety. For example, if your Rich Tea biscuits display a “best before end of May 2016” this means that if you eat them in August 2016 you won’t get food poison but you might get limp biscuits. The biscuits might no longer be at their best but will be edible. Use your common sense: does it smell fine? Does it look good? Then eat it!

  • Eggs: According to food scientist Dana Gunders, eggs can last for three to five weeks if kept at a temperature below 5C. If you keep them in the fridge, don’t put them in the door as the constant changes in temperature every time you open it will make them perish quicker. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said in December 2011 that eggs can be eaten up to two days after they have passed their ‘best before’ date “providing they are cooked thoroughly”. When in doubt, test their freshness- place the egg in a bowl filled with cold water, if the egg lays at the bottom on its side it is still very fresh, if it stands upright on the bottom it’s still ok to eat but should be eaten soon, if the egg floats to the surface it’s not good for you so discard it.
  • Stale bread (specially baguettes): moist the outside of the bread with an ice cube or cold running water but don’t soak it. Wrap in tin foil. Put in the oven at 180C for about 15 minutes.
  • Limp biscuits: pop them in the oven at 180C for 5 minutes.
  • Mouldy cheese: cut the mouldy bits!(unless it’s Stilton in which case the smell and aspect is naturally mouldy J)
  • Stale crisps: pop them in the oven at 180C for 5-15 minutes until they regain their crunchiness.

“Display until” and “Sell by” dates are references for retailers and shouldn’t even be visible to the consumer as they just confuse matters. These dates are mainly for stock control purposes and are not required by law. You can safely ignore “display until” and “sell by” dates.

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