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7 essential facts about best before dates on food

We’re all obsessed with checking them, but how accurate are they? roseannadana roseannadana

THE BEST BEFORE date on food is usually adhered to by most of us with loyalty – and we’re quick to throw something out if it’s out of date.

But how accurate are they? There are some experts out there who are only delighted to let us know.

1. What is the difference between a best before date and a use by date?

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The Food Safety Authority of Ireland, naturally, are the best people to explain this to us.

A 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

Compared to a use by date, which is:

Typically, a ‘use by’ date is used for fresh, ready-to-eat and chilled foods such as yogurt, milk, meat, unpasteurised fruit juices etc.

2. Use by dates are so much more important than best before dates on food

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Because use by dates are applied to fresh foods that are perishable. According to the Guardian, that’s why they are the all important one to keep an eye on:

Everyone I speak to says, categorically, don’t mess with use-by dates. Raw chicken, mince, fish, etc should be eaten within their use-by date to avoid risk of food poisoning. Sometimes even before.

3. Even if something is in date, if it doesn’t smell right throw it away

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If something is in date and doesn’t smell right, don’t use it  - say the experts.

4. So, the best before date is actually a guide on quality not safety

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As this guide into best before dates by WebMD says:

‘Best if used by (or before)’ date. This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavour or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. Sour cream, for instance, is already sour, but can have a zippier, fresh taste when freshly sour.

5. How you store food is more important than dates on the packaging

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As Slate outlined in a piece titled ‘Ignore Expiration Dates’ – it’s all about the conditions you keep food:

The fact is that expiration dates mean very little. Food starts to deteriorate from the moment it’s harvested, butchered, or processed, but the rate at which it spoils depends less on time than on the conditions under which it’s stored.

Say, for instance, keeping fruit in the fridge can keep them fresh for much longer than in the cupboard.

6. So, the best before dates on food are a worst case scenario in terms of storage

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Slate dealt with how best before dates come about – and explained the process as:

To account for all manner of consumer, manufacturers imagine how the laziest people with the most undesirable kitchens might store and handle their food, then test their products based on these criteria.

7. In the end, the judgement falls on you and not the packaging

You have the power. When it’s not a use by date you can use your discretion to tell if it’s good to eat or drink – as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland says:

Where a ‘best before’ date is declared on the label, consumers should use their discretion in determining whether the unopened food product is of good enough quality to eat.

The Slate article even says we should go one step further and do away with best before dates altogether:

Perhaps, then, we should do away with dates altogether and have packages equipped with more instructive guidance on properly storing foods, and on detecting spoilage.

So now, we all might think twice next time we see something verging on the best before date and ask ouselves - is this still good?

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