Food composition and labelling

Understanding 'use by' and 'best before' dates. There is often confusion between 'use by' and 'best before' dates. 

'Use by' dates

'Use by' dates are on foods that go off quickly, like meat, fish, dairy products and prepared salads. After this date, the food may look and smell fine but may be unsafe to eat due to high levels of harmful bacteria. 

  • 'Use by' dates appear on perishable foods. It can be dangerous to eat food past this date, even though it might look and smell fine. But if cooked or frozen its life can be extended beyond the 'use by' date.
  • Check the 'use by' dates on the food in your fridge on a regular basis and be sure to use (eat, cook or freeze) food before its 'use by' to help you avoid throwing food away unnecessarily.
  • Once food with a 'use by' date has been opened, follow any storage instructions such as 'eat within three days of opening'.

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'Best before' dates

'Best before' dates show how long foods such as dry or tinned foods will be at their best. After that date the food is normally safe to eat but the flavour or texture may not be at its best.

  • 'Best before' dates appear on food with a longer shelf life. 
  • They show how long the food will be at its best quality. 
  • Using food after the 'best before' doesn’t mean it will be unsafe. The exception to this is eggs, providing they are cooked thoroughly, they can be eaten a day or two after their 'best before' date.

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Trading Standards

For further food labelling and food composition advice, or what to do if you feel there is a problem, please see our:

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NHS advice

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Page last updated: 23 October 2014