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Understanding the differences between date marks for food and drink

Women comparing antioxidant bevarages in a health cafe after working out.

Blog by Campden BRI

A recent poll by the Food Standards Agency revealed that 44% of adults view ‘use by’ dates as a ‘useful guide’ – not realising the potential health risks of getting food poisoning, which could make them or their family seriously ill.

The new finding shines a light on the larger issue of date mark confusion. We’re all aware of the various date marks t hat appear on food labels, such as ‘use-by’ and ‘display until’, but there are still many who are uncertain about what each of them means.

As a key part of labelling legislation, it’s important to have a good understanding of date marks, which is why Roy teamed up with the experienced food law advisory team at Campden BRI to provide you with the most accurate and up-to-date information surrounding this area.

There are some date marks that are required by law. Referred to as ‘durability indications’ in legislation, these date marks include ‘best before’, ‘best before end’ and ‘use by’. Let’s look at what they mean and how they are different from each other.

‘Best before’ – relating to quality

‘Best before’ or ‘best before end’ dates relate to the quality of the food. Foods with this type of indication are safe to eat after the specified date but may not be at their best. For instance, the flavour or texture might not be as it was when the food was first manufactured. ‘Best before’ dates appear on a wide range of foods including frozen, dried and tinned. The ‘Best before’ date is only accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the packaging.

‘Use by’ – relating to safety

A ‘use by’ date is about safety and is applied to foods that, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable. If consumed after the date, there is a risk that the food will be unsafe and could cause illness. Foods can be eaten until the ‘use by’ date but not afterwards and the storage instructions provided must also be carefully followed. Foods that display ‘use by’ dates are those that quickly become unsafe, such as fresh meat or ready-to-eat salads.

It is a legal requirement that where a ‘use by’ date is displayed, it must be followed by a description of the storage conditions that must be observed to keep the food safely for the specified duration – for example ‘store in a refrigerator’. For ‘best before’ indications, instructions on how to store the food are required where special storage conditions are needed to retain the quality of the product, such as ‘store in a dry place, protect from heat’. These storage conditions, for both ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ labelled foods are therefore legal requirements to enable consumers to store the products correctly before the packaging is opened; such information should follow the stated date.

Where consumers may get confused

Other date or duration information that is presented on food labels can cause confusion for consumers, but again some of it is legally required. It is a legal requirement, for example, to provide food storage instructions for when the pack has been opened and where foods require special storage conditions, such as ‘once opened use within 2 days.’ The wording of such indications is, however, not specified. Particular foods, such as frozen meat, frozen meat preparations (e.g. burgers and sausages) and frozen unprocessed fish must be labelled with the date of freezing, using the wording ‘frozen on.’

Indications such as ‘display until’ are not legally required but may be included on food labels to aid stock rotation in retail establishments.

Date marks and the law

Current EU harmonised labelling legislation (Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers, as amended), which has been retained into UK legislation since the start of 2021 when the EU exit transition period ended, requires most foods to carry either a ‘use by’ or ‘best before’/‘best before end’ date. It is an offence to sell food after the ‘use by’ date, however, food with an expired ‘best before’ or ‘best before end’ date can still be offered for sale.

Products that do not have to display a date mark

The legislation provides a list of products that do not have to carry a date mark (unless product-specific provisions apply), these include:

  • fresh fruit and vegetables, including potatoes, which have not been peeled, cut or similarly treated (this derogation shall not apply to sprouting seeds and similar products such as legume sprouts);
  • wines, liqueur wines, sparkling wines, aromatised wines, and similar products obtained from fruit other than grapes, and beverages falling within CN code 2206 00 obtained from grapes or grape musts;
  • beverages containing 10% or more by volume of alcohol;
  • bakers’ or pastry cooks’ wares which, given the nature of their content, are normally consumed within 24 hours of their manufacture;
  • vinegar;
  • cooking salt;
  • solid sugar;
  • confectionery products consisting almost solely of flavoured and/or coloured sugars;
  • chewing gums and similar chewing products.

These foods are considered safe either due to an inherent ability to resist microbial growth due to certain physical attributes, such as low pH (vinegar) or low water activity (salt, sugar), a naturally short shelf-life (baked goods) or the fact that spoilage is noticeable and not a safety issue (uncut fresh fruit and vegetables).

‘Use by’ or ‘best before’ – which is it?

It’s important that all food business operators (FBOs) understand the reason they are using either a ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ indication. This decision must be based on the type of product, its ingredients and the processing that it has been subjected to. If an FBO decides to use a ‘best before’ date, then they must be certain that there is no risk to consumers if the product is eaten after the specified date (and that means any time period after the end of the date). If a ‘use by’ date is displayed, FBOs must have a valid reason for using that date, and that usually means obtaining and holding data that validates why that date is used.

Campden BRI are often approached by FBOs who’d like them to investigate their foods (often by looking at the microbiological activity) to help them determine the shelf-life of their products. It’s a complex topic that’s often evolving, which is why their experts recently aligned their shelf-life evaluation guidance document with recent changes in this area.

Catch 22: date marking, consumer preference, high quality and food waste

There’s a bit of a balancing act for manufacturers when it comes to date marking. Conflicting needs from several areas can make putting in place a date mark no easy task. For example, health bodies want less salt, sugar and saturated fat in products to improve consumer health, however some of these ingredients can help to preserve foods, providing a longer life and, in some cases, inhibit microbial growth.

Further considerations come from the wants and needs of the consumers: many want high-quality fresher foods and clean labels. There’s also the push to reduce food waste driven by organisations such as WRAP. This may be helped by using a longer shelf-life so consumers have more time to consume foods at home, meaning less would be thrown away.

The food safety risk

As can be seen from the above, there are many conflicting issues when it comes to defining the shelf-life of a food. Reducing preservatives (to achieve clean label products) may well reduce shelf-life; consumers want fresher foods and may see longer life as ‘less fresh’, yet the push to reduce waste demands longer shelf-lives. In some cases, it may prompt a move from using ‘use by’ to ‘best before’ on some products (with food safety in mind of course).

The primary and critical decision must always be one of food safety. We must never increase consumer health risks by our move towards less preserved, longer life products or by a switch to using ‘best before’ rather than ‘use-by’ dates.

These decisions must only be made after rigorous risk assessments and in many cases obtaining scientific evidence that changes are valid, supported by good science, and do not increase consumer health risk.

So where are we now?

All in all, there’s a lot for FBOs to consider when it comes to date marks. Food producers may need help in defining good, safe date codes that optimise shelf-life, so that foods are economic to produce and less likely to become waste. Ultimately, the number one priority is, and always has been, to have date codes that ensure the safety of the product for consumers.

Campden BRI work extensively helping food producers define the best shelf-life date code type to use. They can optimise ‘use-by’ dates, help manufacturers determine shelf-life data once the packaging has been opened and back up shelf-lives with required data to ensure foods have a long life but always remain safe to consume. Their regulatory team can also help you in this area. If you have any questions, please drop a line.

Their guideline document on determining shelf-life, that is backed by expert advice and practical shelf-life assessment, has recently been updated and is now available to purchase.

Blog by Campden BRI

Makisha Schultz

Makisha Schultz

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