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Difference between Best Before, Use By & Sell By

When I stood watching a female friend pick up a bottle of milk and pour it out, saying it was past its’ best, despite not even smelling it. I sneakily took a look at the use by date by offering to pop the bottle in the recycling. It still had three days to go. I couldn’t resist. She poured out about 2 pints of milk for absolutely no reason. I asked why she’d poured it out as the milk was fine. Her response was that it only had a few days left and she didn’t want to take the chance.

Now for most of us, that kind of wastage is simply ridiculous. It’s throwing good money away to replace food that isn’t even at the use by date. I’m not a pensioner, but even I grew up with no dates on food, meaning we had to choose the time food was no longer safe to eat or drink. I’m actually amazed our species has lasted so long, as we’re just so absolutely BAD at judging safety of food, because we really have never had to work it out for ourselves.

For cooked food, my grandmother used to work on the association of three’s. Three hours to the fridge/freezer, and three days to the bin. There were no dates on sliced meat from the local shop, but it never lasted long enough to worry about turning. For milk, she would have kept it until it began to turn, but given that milk rarely ever lasted that long, it isn’t something we had to worry about.

Then it came to my kids. My eldest and youngest, both started refusing to eat crisps or biscuits that were past their best before date. I grew up learning to ignore best before dates as they are really just best quality guarantee dates for longer lasting products. I have no idea where they got that idea from, and I do my best to help them stop this ridiculousness. My teens will often refuse to eat perfectly good food that is close to or past a best before date. They clearly struggle with best before and use by, even with my constant nagging.

The problem is that younger people in my circles, are too used to an abundance of food. Before the rise of the super supermarket chains on mostly every corner, food was simpler, and we bought less. There were also far fewer choices and we ate far more healthily as families where we could afford it. As a general rule, my parent and grandparents brought home enough for each day. A pint of milk on the doorstep daily, with eggs and cream once a week. We tend to go further to shop nowadays and buy food that is aimed at lasting longer by the manufacturers and processors.

To make food last longer, they add all sorts of preservatives and additives, which reduces the quality of our food. I’m not convinced longevity is improved in most cases as almost everything, including bread, now seems to come previously frozen and defrosted before hitting the shelves. When I see best before dates, I can see my grandmother in my mind, saying best before dates is a way to persuade people to spend more of their money on new food. She knew what she was talking about, and as she owned and ran a grocery shop for many years, she was quite shrewd.

Food is different now. We’re faced with best before, use by and sell by dates on almost everything we buy.

Throwing away a fortune of perfectly good food, seems to be a problem with understanding and knowledge, and don’t forget that profit making industry.

Best Before Dates

For customers. This is simply a guide on when food should be eaten for the best quality, which the manufacturer will class as the date they will no longer guarantee freshness, scent, consistency etc. Things like sweeties and crisps, biscuits, packets, jars and tins of food, all fall into this category.

Some products will have a best before date before opening, which then it moves to a use by date of a few days kept in a fridge. Things like sauces, mayonnaise, long life milk and orange juices etc, fall into this subset of best before.

Use By

For customers. Again, a use by date isn’t always a date where food will be guaranteed to make us sick. It is, however, an indication of best quality, and helps shoppers to know when a food should be eaten by. As this is most often attached to foods with shorter shelf life, such as fresh bakery, dairy, meats, poultry etc, the quality can go down fast after the use by date. Manufacturers build in a buffer level, but the use by date is an indication of when safety of the product may begin to reduce.

Sell By

For retailers. This date lets shopkeepers and staff know when to remove the product from sale. The product will not be dangerous at this point, and there are still a few days to the use by date, but this allows a manufacturer to control how long their products with very short shelf life are displayed to customers.

2 thoughts on “Difference between Best Before, Use By & Sell By

  1. I was guilty of doing this before, but since money is tight more than ever, we’ve been buying only enough for us to tide over and we do go over the best before dates, especially if they seem ok. So far, we’re okay haha

  2. I have just made bread using your recipe and the order that you place ingredients in the pan and I must admit I am very impressed. But I made a mistake and used the Basic Rapid programme on my Panasonic but it still turned out well. ( I have made gluten free bread for my husband for years, who is a ceoliac and that is an entirely different kettle of fish.) I had made bread two days ago using the Panasonic recipe and a four hour baking cycle and it was a total disaster so I must thank you for your clear instructions and your opinions which were very helpful.

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