What is a Best before date, a Use by date and when are they required?

As a general rule, under the Food Labelling Regulations 1996, it is a requirement that food be marked or labelled with an “appropriate durability indication”. Where food is highly perishable, from a microbiological point of view, and is likely to constitute an immediate danger to human health if eaten after a short period of time a “use by” date is required. In certain other cases a “best before” date is required.

When is a “best before” date or “use by” date not required?

Certain foods are exempt from the requirement that food be marked or labelled with an “appropriate durability indication”.  These are as follows: 

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables (including potatoes but not including sprouting seeds, legume sprouts and similar products)which have not been peeled or cut into pieces;
  • Wine, including liqueur wine, sparkling wine, aromatised wine and similar drinks made from fruit other than grapes;
  • Drinks made from grapes or grape musts;
  • Alcoholic drinks where the strength by volume is 10 per cent or more;
  • Soft drinks, fruit juices, fruit nectar and alcoholic drinks, sold in a container containing more than 5 litres and intended for supply to catering establishments;
  • Flour confectionery (for example, shortbread, sponges, crumpets, muffins, pastry and meringues) and bread which, given the nature of its content, is normally consumed within 24 hours of its preparation;
  • Vinegar;
  • Cooking and table salt;
  • Solid sugar and products consisting almost solely of flavoured or coloured sugars;
  • Chewing gums and similar products;
  • Edible ices (for example, ice creams and sorbets) in individual portions.

“Best before” dates and “use by” dates

“Best before” dates

A “best before” date is the date up to and including which the food can reasonably be expected to retain its specific properties if properly stored.

Where food is required to be marked or labelled with a “best before” date it must also be marked with any storage conditions which need to be observed if the food is to retain its specific properties until that date.  

As a general rule where food is required to carry a “best before” date the date must be expressed in terms of the day, month and year. There are, however, three exceptions to this general rule. These are as follows: 

  • Where food can reasonably be expected to retain its specific properties for three months or less, the “best before” date can be expressed in terms of a day and month only; 
  • Where food can reasonably be expected to retain its specific properties for more than three months but not more than eighteen months, the food can be labelled or marked “best before end” and the “best before end” date, in such situations, can be expressed in terms of a month and year only; 
  • Where food can reasonably be expected to retain its specific properties for more than eighteen months, the “best before” date can be expressed in terms of a month and year only or simply in terms of a year only provided that the works “best before” are replaced by the words “best before end”.

“Use by” dates

A “use by” date is the date up to and including which the food is recommended for use if properly stored.   

Where food is required to be marked or labelled with a “use by” date (i.e. where the food is highly perishable) it must also be marked with any storage conditions which need to be observed.  

 “Use by” dates must be expressed in terms of a day and month or in terms of a day, month and year. In both cases the date must be expressed in that order.