Best Before ... What the Date Labels on Food Actually Mean

Everyone knows the best-before date (BBD). But only very few people know what it actually means. Many equate the BBD with food being edible. Once the date has passed, they throw away food. Big mistake: As long as the package is sealed, many foods can usually be enjoyed for days, weeks or even months beyond the best-before date. But what does the BBD actually represent?

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The ‘best before‘ date is simply a guideline – a guarantee by the manufacturers – that the food they process and package will retain its specific properties such as smell or taste up to the specified date as long as it is properly stored. If butter, jam or noodles have expired, it means: use on your senses and check the items carefully. If you notice any changes in colour, consistency, smell or taste, the food should be discarded.

The BBD therefore means the date until when the food retains its expected quality. In addition to that, some countries also have a ‘use by‘ date on products. After expiration of the ‘use by‘ date, the food should not be used.

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Whether or not a distinction is made between ‘best before‘ and ‘use by‘: For perishable goods such as minced meat, the expiry date matters. If it is exceeded, the product must not be consumed because of the risk of salmonella or coli bacteria. Foods that are indefinitely edible, such as vinegar, salt or sugar, or that grow mould or rot in a very short time, which is clearly visible to everyone, such as fruit and vegetables, do not have to carry a ‘best before’ label.

While most countries use the BBD system, the UK, Japan and Norway use ‘double best-before dates’. The corresponding food items in these countries are labelled with a sell-by date, which indicates for how long they can be sold in stores, as well as an expiry date, which indicates the actual time at which food is considered to be fit for human consumption. The purpose is to clear up misunderstandings.

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