Food labels and food waste - do you know your ‘use by’ from your ‘best before’ dates?

In the home, it’s estimated that up to a third of food waste is linked to date labelling on food products. So, are we clear on the meaning of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates?

‘Use by’ date

The ‘use by’ date is all about safety. Foods can be eaten up until the use by date. You generally see these on foods that go off quickly, such as fish, meat and ready-prepared salads. You can also freeze some foods up until the use by date. If it’s after the use by date, don’t eat it, cook it or freeze it. So if the food has a ‘use by’ date of today, then you must use the food by the end of today. The food could be unsafe to eat or drink, even if it looks and smells ok. 

‘Best before’ date

The ‘best before’ date is all about quality. The food will simply taste at its best, before the best before date. However, the food will still be safe to eat after the best before date, but the flavour and texture may not be as good.

Storage instructions

For the ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates to be valid, you need to follow the storage instructions correctly. If the product advises to ‘keep refrigerated’ and the food has been left on a table in a warm room all afternoon then the food will spoil more quickly and you may risk food poisoning.

So what goes in the fridge?

Any foods marked with a ‘use by’ date and ‘keep refrigerated’ on the label should be kept in the fridge. Check that your fridge temperature is at or below 5°C. A survey of 48 refrigerators in the home, found that 70% were operating at temperatures above 5°C (WRAP, 2010). Maintaining fridge temperatures at the correct level could prevent £200 million worth of food being wasted as well as help prevent incidences of foodborne illness (WRAP, 2017).

Remember to cool down leftovers at room temperature before storing it in the fridge. As soon as the food is cooled, put it into the fridge and eat within two days. Avoid putting open cans in the fridge as the food may develop a metallic taste – for example, if you only use half a can of chopped tomatoes, put the remaining contents into a food container or a covered bowl before refrigerating.

It is best not to put bread in the fridge as it goes stale much quicker. Store bread in a cool dark place, such as a bread bin or cupboard, or freeze it for future use.

Most fruit and vegetables are best stored in the fridge. Exceptions are bananas and pineapples, which are best kept cool but not in the fridge; and potatoes and onions, which should be kept in a cool, dark place.

What goes in the freezer?

Almost any food and drink can be frozen – yogurt, cheese (except soft cheese as the freezing process affects the texture), butter, milk, meat, fish, soups, sauces, baked goods and bread. 

If you put a whole loaf of sliced bread in the freezer, loosely tap the loaf on a work surface before putting it in the freezer to help the frozen slices come apart more easily.

Most fruit and veg freeze well, although anything with a high water content like strawberries and tomatoes will go a bit squishy, but they are still okay to cook with. Bananas can be peeled and then frozen and herbs can be put into an ice cube tray with a small amount of water.

Eggs also freeze well as long as you crack them and place in a freezer safe container.


WRAP (2017) Helping consumers reduce food waste – Retail survey 2015. Available:

WRAP (2010) Reducing food waste through the chill chain. Available:

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Edinburgh, Midlothian, EH8
Written by Dr Laura Wyness, (PhD, MSc, BSc, RNutr)
Edinburgh, Midlothian, EH8

I'm a registered nutritionist with extensive experience in nutrition research and communications. Through working with industry, charities and policy makers, I have gained research experience and expertise in many areas of nutrition including diet around pregnancy, healthy ageing and food innovation.

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