Best Before, Use By, Sell By, Display Until -What They Mean

Part of our frugal living strategy is reducing food costs. To do this we avoid waste and take advantage of price reductions on foods near the end of their life. When buying short-life foods reduced you need to understand the dating system and how to safely store your bargain. Salmonella and other food poisoning is no joke.

Use By Best Before Labels‘Display Until’ and ‘Sell By’ dates

The first date you may see on a pack, although not compulsory is ‘Display Until‘ or ‘Sell By‘. These dates are not required by law but are more of an instruction to the shop’s staff. The dates you actually need to concern yourself with are ‘Use By’ and ‘Best Before’.

Use By Dates

‘Use by’ is usually found on foods with a short shelf like cooked meats or fish or pork pies. The use by date does assume that the item is stored correctly. It is critically important that you store chilled foods as the instructions state.

If something is safe in a fridge at 5°C or less for 2 days it may only be safe on the worktop in a warm kitchen for 6 hours. If your fridge is at too high a temperature then the shelf life is reduced.

The producers are cautious with use by dates and build a safety margin into the date but you shouldn’t rely on that margin. In fact you shouldn’t rely on use by dates to keep you safe if your food smells a bit off. Perhaps it wasn’t stored correctly somewhere along the road to your kitchen. Never let a use by date override your nose, play it safe.

‘Use By’ does not mean ‘eat by’ though. You can freeze your bargain immediately you get home and keep it until you are ready, assuming it is suitable for home freezing. Often fish has already been frozen and should not be re-frozen.

When you defrost frozen foods the clock has re-started. Worse still, the cell damage freezing causes means it will be more vulnerable to breeding food poisoning bacteria.

The rule is – defrost and cook immediately it is defrosted. If you can’t do that for some reason, discard it. Saving 50p at the cost of being ill for a week doesn’t make sense!
Don’t store it for too long in the freezer, either.

Having said that about re-freezing, don’t forget that once-frozen foods can be re-frozen if they have been cooked in between. Perhaps some frozen minced beef has been turned into a lasagne which can be safely frozen.

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Don’t risk it with use by dates, once they’ve gone past it they may look and smell fine but be breeding bacteria and have become dangerous.

With meats and fish, even if they’re unsafe for people, we find our pet cat will appreciate them. Like dogs, their guts are different to ours and they can eat things that will make us ill. For legal reasons, that’s not a suggestion you do the same or treat that as advice.

Best Before Dates

‘Best Before’ is more forgiving. It merely indicates that the food is now past its best and is starting to perhaps lose flavour. The date on a tin is ‘best before’ as on dried or frozen foods. Some best before dates really don’t make any difference as far as we can tell and I’m sure they’re only on the pack because they’re legally required.

As with ‘Use By’ dates – Never let a use by date override your nose, play it safe. If it smells or tastes off, assume it is.

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