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Use by versus best before: what’s the difference?


When you pick up food in packaging, you expect to clearly see certain details on the label. Like an expiration date. But how many people know what this information actually means?

A third of people are throwing products away at their ‘best before’ date, because people think that they can’t then be consumed. And this misunderstanding is contributing to the food waste disposal demands being placed on local authorities.

Educating households on the difference between use by and best before dates will help councils to reduce the amount of food being thrown away in the community. And there are several techniques your waste management team can use to kick-start this process.

What is the difference between use by and best before?

In order to tackle food waste, local authorities need to educate households on what food and drink labels actually mean – as confusion results in consumable products being thrown away.

Use by dates are a food safety standard required by law on the labels of highly perishable products. Raw meat, fish, eggs, milk and ready-to-eat salads are examples of products that need to be labelled with use by information. They cannot be sold by retailers after this date, as deterioration in product quality could put consumers at risk of food poisoning.

On the other hand, best before dates are an indicator of when a product is at its best. There is minimal risk to eating or drinking these items after this date, so long as they look and smell fit for consumption. However, they may not be optimum quality. Products that fall into this category include frozen, dried and tinned foods.

Some food brands choose to put use by dates on food that only requires best before advice, because they worry people will eat these products past their most flavoursome moment. Thankfully, the tide is starting to turn on this practice; Danone recently announced that it will replace expiration dates with best before labels on its yoghurts, to prevent consumable food being thrown away.

To add further complexity, some food and beverages also have ‘display until’ information on the label. This helps supermarkets and grocery stores to manage inventory, keeping stock fresh and appetising. However, shoppers may believe that products aren’t safe for consumption once they’ve reached their display until date.

Do all products need a sell by date?

Another challenge your waste management team needs to address is how households manage items that don’t have any form of expiration date on the label. Giving people confidence to use their own judgement will help to reduce the volume of perfectly edible food being thrown away in each neighbourhood.

Both use by and best before dates are a legal requirement for certain perishable foodstuffs, but retailers can continue to sell items past their best before date. And some food and beverage products are exempt from expiration labelling altogether. For example, it’s legal to sell loose fruit and vegetables, flour, individually wrapped confectionery, wine, ice lollies, salt, vinegar and chewing gum without an expiration date.

Yet many food manufacturers still include expiration dates because they worry about the impact on brand perception if their products are eaten past their best quality. Also, putting a shelf life on items encourages people to consume them quicker and purchase more frequently.

How can councils help people to reduce food waste?

When it comes to labelling standards, consumers are still getting confused between use by and best before. This can result in people eating out of date food because it looks or smells fine (but makes them ill) or throwing away items that could still be eaten.

If council waste management teams can help residents to understand the difference between the two, you can prevent consumable food and drink going into the bin while still keeping people safe. The Food Standards Agency has useful resources on best before and use by dates, as does the NHS Eat Well campaign.

Publishing educational blogs, social media posts and leaflet drops on what expiration dates mean will inform local residents. Including an information section on resident mobile apps and portals will also help to spread the message. The easier people can access information, the more likely they are to follow it.

Explaining the difference between best before and use by dates is just the tip of the iceberg. You can also reduce local food waste by encouraging households to get smart about storing and using perishable foods, for example:

  • Encouraging people to freeze foods before their use by date if they’re not going to be consumed. Often households aren’t aware of what foods are suitable for freezing – milk, cream, cheese, houmous, avocado and cake frosting can all be frozen, for example.
  • Sharing ways to keep food fresh for longer. Many people don’t read storage instructions on packaging. Sharing bitesize tips on your residents’ portal and social channel will show them the best way to manage perishable produce. For instance, one common mistake is putting fruits and vegetables next to each other; fruits produce a ripening hormone that can cause some vegetables to go bad quickly.
  • Promoting nearby farmers markets and zero waste stores, so people buy more loose foods that don’t have to be dated. This also helps to cut down on waste packaging and supports the local economy.
  • Sharing recipes that focus on using up leftovers – a lot of food is wasted due to lack of inspiration. Providing ideas for turning common kitchen ingredients into delicious meals can help households stretch their weekly food shop a little further.
  • Finding ways to give waste food a second life. Even if something isn’t fit for consumption, there are still ways to make it useful. For example, if fruits or vegetables have passed their best, you can encourage people to save the seeds and grow their own produce. They don’t always need a garden: if you cut the bottom inch off a spring onion with its roots still intact, it will regrow in a cup of water.

How can you prove your food waste strategies are working?

Local authorities have a critical role in empowering households to cut down their food waste, by helping them to manage and use produce correctly. But many councils can’t prove their campaigns are working, because they have no means of tracking and measuring the volume of food waste being processed weekly, monthly or annually.

Municipal waste management software will enable your organisation to understand the time, effort and expense of coordinating refuse collections – including food waste – and streamline process to meet demands.

By bringing down the volume of food being thrown away in your local area, you can scale back round requirements, reducing operational costs and redeploying resources to focus on other problem areas.

Whitespace software increases your control over municipal waste management processes. Book a free demo to find out more.  

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