Best-before and Use-by Dates
What is the ‘date of minimum durability’?
In legal terms, the ‘date of minimum durability’ describes the shelf-life of a food product. It is the date until which a food product retains its specific properties when properly stored. The date of minimum durability of a food must be indicated by a ‘best-before’ or a ‘use-by’ date.
What is the difference between a ‘best-before’ and a ‘use-by’ date?
A ‘best-before’ date will reflect the quality of a food product e.g. taste, aroma, appearance, rather than the safety of the product. Typically a best-before date is declared on food products such as canned, dried and frozen foods.
A ‘use-by’ date is used on food products which, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period, to constitute a danger to health. This applies to most chilled foods e.g. yogurt, milk, meat.
Who determines the shelf-life of a food product?
The manufacturers of the food product are responsible for determining an accurate and consistent shelf-life, as manufacturers are more familiar with the nature of, and ingredients used, in a final food. It is not up to the retailer to establish a best-before or use-by date of any food product.
Has the legislation for the labelling of a date of minimum durability changed?
No. Directive 2000/13/EC as amended requires a date of minimum durability to be declared (either a use-by or best-before date). This is EU legislation that applies to all Member States and all foods marketed within the EU must comply with these rules.
Should I ignore the date that is declared on a food label?
Where a use-by date is declared on the label, this should not be ignored. Always adhere to the use-by date and discard any food which has exceeded this date.
Where a best-before date is declared on the label, consumers should use their discretion in determining whether the unopened food product is safe to eat. However, in the case of eggs, they should be consumed within the best-before date stamped on the egg or on the label.
What if a product has been opened but is still within its use-by/best-before date?
If a product has been opened, then the expiry date on the label becomes irrelevant. Follow manufacturers’ instructions in relation to the length of time the product is safe to eat after opening. Many manufacturers will carry information such as ‘use within 3 days of opening’ on the label.
Does it matter if the food packaging has been damaged?
It is important to examine any unopened product to ensure that cans are not damaged and the seals on glass jars are not broken. Do not use a food product if the packaging has been damaged, even if it is within its expiry date.
How are best-before/use-by dates established?
Manufacturers must conduct studies to determine if the food product complies with microbiological criteria throughout the products shelf-life. The FSAI has produced Guidance Note No. 18 - Validation of Product Shelf-life to assist manufacturers determine shelf-life.
How useful are display-until dates?
Display-until dates are not defined in legislation and this is additional voluntary information which is used by some retailers to allow them to identify any food products which are nearing the end of their shelf-life. Consumers need not pay any attention to these display-until dates.
Are retailers permitted to sell food which is past its ‘best-before’ date?
It is not against the law for retailers to sell food products which are past their best-before date but retailers should be advising consumers of this fact. Typically such foods will be displayed either at a discount price or on special offer (e.g. 2 for the price of 1).
It is illegal however, for retailers to sell foods which are past their use-by date as these foods could be unsafe to eat.
What should I do if I buy food which is past its ‘use-by’ date?
If you have purchased food which is past its use-by date, do not consume it and either return the product to the shop in which you purchased it or contact your local environmental health officer who will follow up the matter on your behalf. You can also contact the FSAI advice line on 1890 33 66 77 to make a complaint or fill in our online complaint form
Last reviewed: 18/10/2011