Different types of date labels serve different purposes. The best before date is about the quality of the food, while the use by date is about safety. In the EU, UK and Australia, these labels are regulated to ensure that retailers use the appropriate one for their products. 

By contrast, dating is not required by US Federal law, with the exception of infant formula and baby foods, which must be withdrawn by their expiration date. For all other foods — except dairy products in some states — freshness dating is strictly voluntary on the part of manufacturers, and the labelling itself can vary. The FDA is supporting the food industry’s efforts to standardise the use of use-by dates on its packaged food labelling.

Despite being well-regulated in the EU, a study carried out by the European Commission in 2018 estimated that up to 10% of the 88 million tonnes of food waste that is generated in the EU every year are linked to date labelling; for example, because of poor legibility or due to misinterpretation of the meaning of the ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ terminology. A better understanding of what the different labels mean could help your food business reduce its food waste considerably.

Food waste in foodservice 

More than one quarter of all food produced globally is wasted. Food loss (food that has been taken out of the supply chain at an early stage) and food waste (food that has been removed from the supply chain during distribution and in shops, restaurants and our homes) are responsible for about 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations Environment Programme's 2021 Food Waste Index has found that an estimated 931 million tonnes of food goes to waste every year — and 26% of this comes from foodservice. Nearly 30% of the world’s agricultural land is currently occupied to produce food that is ultimately never consumed.

The reduction of food waste has a role to play in meeting several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly. These 127 goals are designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The SDGs are to be reached by the year 2030, as part of the UN Resolution 70/1, the 2030 Agenda.

The reduction of food waste directly affects SDG Goal 12, which aims to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”. SDG 12.3 aims “to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains by 2030”. In order to reach this ambitious goal, every stakeholder of the food chain — from producer to consumer — has a responsibility to take action. Fortunately, cutting down on your waste means reduced business costs in addition to the significant environmental benefits. 

Here’s a simple breakdown of what these terms mean across the EU and in the UK. It’s worth noting that the US uses different phrasing.

What is a use-by date?

The ‘use by’ date on food is about safety, and informs the consumer that the foodstuff is safe to consume until this date. It’s important to note that the use-by date is only valid if the foodstuff is stored properly in accordance with packaging instructions, such as ‘keep refrigerated’.

A use-by date is generally given to highly perishable foods such as meats and dairy products. After the use-by date, it’s important not to consume this foodstuff, even if it looks and smells fine, as it is unsafe to eat.

What is a best-before date?

The best-before date is about quality, and informs the consumer that the foodstuff is at its optimal quality until this date. After this date has passed, the food remains safe to eat, although it may depreciate in taste, aroma, appearance and nutritional value. 

A best-before date is commonly assigned to non-perishable foods — products that are canned, dried, frozen, etc.

Once the best-before date on a product has passed, its consumption is at the discretion of the consumer, who typically relies on indicators such as appearance and smell to make a decision. Not all foods that have passed the best-before date should be discarded; spotted, overripe bananas, for example, have an intense sweetness that lends itself perfectly to banana bread. 

What are ‘baked on’ or ‘baked for’ dates?

In Australia and New Zealand, there is one additional date label, applied solely to bread. Bread can be labelled with a ‘baked-on’ or ‘baked-for’ date, provided its shelf life is less than seven days.

5 ways to stop food waste in your kitchen:

  1. Store foods correctly. Check that fridges and freezers are running at the right temperatures and ensure that foods are stored in accordance with package instructions.

  2. Keep a stock inventory. You should always know what you’re purchasing and what you have to hand. Maintain a running list of the foods in all of your storage areas, including their use-by dates, for easy reference. 

  3. Practise stock rotation. Use the ‘first in, first out’ method when storing food, placing newer stock to the back to ensure that older items are used first. Check use-by and best-before dates on a daily basis.

  4. Order with caution. Ensure that you only purchase ingredients at a volume that you know your kitchen will use. It can be tempting to buy in bulk, but doing so can leave you with more food than you can utilise — especially where non-perishable items are concerned.

  5. Predict food orders. Having a system in place to help you accurately predict food orders and manage stock means more accurate data, a better understanding of order patterns and more control, which ultimately leads to less food waste and more money saved.

For a climate-first, smart and convenient way to prevent food waste, check out our fully automated carbon food tracking tool, Foodprint, or get in touch at info@nutritics.com.