Best before and Use by Dates
What is shelf-life?
Shelf-life is the period of time during which a food maintains its acceptable or desirable characteristics under specified storage and handling conditions. These acceptable or desirable characteristics can be related to the safety or quality of the product and can be microbiological, chemical or physical in nature.
Under European legislation (Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011) shelf-life is referred to as the “date of minimum durability”.
What is the date of minimum durability?
Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011 requires that the shelf-life of a foodstuff be indicated by either a date of minimum durability (‘best before’) or a ‘use by’ date.
What is the difference between a ‘best before’ and a ‘use by’ date?
The date of minimum durability, or ‘best before’ date, is the date until which a foodstuff retains its specific properties, e.g., taste, aroma, appearance, any specific qualities which relate to the product, vitamin content, etc., when the product has been stored appropriately and the package unopened.
Typically, a ‘best before’ date is used for food products such as canned, dried, ambient, frozen foods, etc. Many foods that are past their ‘best before’ date may be safe to eat, but their quality may have deteriorated.
In the case of foods, which from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health, the date of minimum durability must be replaced by the ‘use by’ date. The ‘use by’ is the date up until which a food may be used safely, i.e. consumed, cooked or processed, once it has been stored correctly. After the ‘use by’ date, a food is deemed unsafe in accordance with article 14(2) of Regulation EC No. 178/2002 and cannot be sold.
Typically, a ‘use by’ date is used for fresh, ready-to-eat and chilled foods such as yogurt, milk, meat, unpasteurised fruit juices, etc.
An exception to this is raw, shell eggs which require a ‘best before’ date as set out in Regulation (EC) No. 589/2008 as regards marketing standards for eggs.
Who decides if a product requires a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date?
The food business operator (usually the manufacturer or producer) attaching a label to a food product is responsible for deciding whether a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date is required for declaration of its shelf-life.
When should this decision be taken?
The decision as to whether a food requires a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date should be taken when the food manufacturer or producer is developing their food safety management system, based on HACCP principles, for the product. It is strongly recommended that the food manufacturer or producer document this process.
Food business operators who receive bulk food product and subsequently break it down and repackage it, are now responsible for ensuring that the information provided relating to this product, including its shelf-life, is correct, under Article 8 of Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011.
If changes are made to the information provided, for example the ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date, these may only be made provided such modifications do not mislead the final consumer or otherwise reduce the level of consumer protection and the possibilities for the final consumer to make informed choices. The FBOs are responsible for any changes they make to the food information accompanying a food.
Do all foods require a shelf-life declaration?
No, a shelf-life declaration, i.e., a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date, is not required for the following foods:
- Fresh fruit and vegetables, including potatoes, which have not been peeled, cut or similarly treated. However, this does not apply to sprouting seeds and similar products such as legume sprouts which do require a date of minimum durability.
- 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
- Cooking salt
- Solid sugar
- Confectionery products consisting almost solely of flavoured and/or coloured sugars
- Chewing gums and similar chewing products.
What are the shelf-life labelling requirements for non-prepacked foods?
Non-prepacked or loose foods are foods offered for sale to the final consumer or to mass caterers without prepackaging. It also includes foods that are packed on the sales premises at the consumer’s request (e.g., a sandwich at a deli counter) or foods prepared on the premises and prepacked for sale from that premises (e.g., lasagne made on the premises, packed and available sale).
By law (Article 44 of Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011), a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date does not have to be declared on non-prepacked foods. However, in order to provide consumers with adequate information to make an informed decision regarding food safety, we recommend labelling non-prepacked foods with a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date. This could be done, for example, by including the date on a scales label. If a food business chooses to provide this information on a voluntary basis, the date declaration on the label must comply with the requirements set out in Annex X of Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011.
Are there other forms of expressing shelf-life used on food products?
Some FBOs, in addition to a declaring a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date, will label food products with terms such as ‘sell by’, ‘expires on’, ‘eat by’, ‘display until’, etc., followed by an appropriate date. These types of labels are sometimes used by food businesses for stock control purposes. From a consumer point of view, when checking shelf-life, only a ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date need to be considered.
How does a business decide if a food needs a ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date?
Food businesses are advised to refer to Guidance Note 18 Validation of Product Shelf-life for further information on how to determine whether a product requires a 'best before' or 'use by' date. In 2020, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a decision tree to assist food businesses in deciding which type of date marking should be labelled on food product. It can be found on page 32 of Guidance on date marking and related food information: part 1 (date marking)
In 2021, EFSA published additional guidance on food information relating to storage conditions and/or time limits for consumption after opening a food package and thawing of frozen foods in Guidance on date marking and related food information: part 2 (food information)
A decision tree was published on page 18 in this guidance to assist food businesses in deciding whether the time limit for consumption after opening, due to safety reasons, is potentially shorter than the initial ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date of the product in its unopened package.