Packaged food is labelled with two kinds of date marks – ‘best before’ and ‘use by’dates – and both have different connotations. In reality though, many of us don’t differentiate between the two and this means that perfectly good food ends up in the bin. ST intern Lydia Blocksidge explores what the date marks on packaged food actually mean and discovers that the best way to judge the safety of your food is with your senses.

It’s sad to think that we have lost touch with our food to the extent that we now rely on date marks to determine its edibility, without even attempting to use our senses.

To make the issue worse, there are two different kinds of date marks that most of us don’t distinguish between; we simply look for the numbers on the packet and think no further:

Best before dates

Best before dates do not indicate the expiration date of a product – they give you an idea of how long the food will last before it loses quality. This means it is likely still perfectly fine to eat even after the best before date passes. This next bit is also important– according to the Better Health website, “Manufacturers usually choose a best before date well before the time when the food would be expected to deteriorate and spoil.”

Products labelled with ‘best before’ dates can still legally be sold once the date has passed. These products may be tinned goods, sauces, veggie burgers and some dairy products.

Tip: The best thing to do is to use your sense of sight and smell to check if a food marked with a best before date is still okay to eat – if it looks and smells like you’d expect, it’s still good to gobble and you shouldn’t waste it by throwing it away.

Use by dates

Foods marked with a use-by date may become unsafe to eat after the date mark passes even if they look fine, so authorities state that foods passed their use-by dates should not be consumed. ‘Use by’ dates are used for public health and safety reasons and as a safety net for the food industry. When a ‘use by’ date has passed, the food product cannot legally be sold so grocers must send it to landfill.

Tip:  One way to reduce the amount of products that end up in the bin is to purchase products that are closer to their ‘use by’ than others. In other words, don’t fondle through the grocer’s fridge to get the bottle of milk way at the back – simply buy a smaller bottle of milk with a shorter life on it and you could save a whole lot of milk from ending up in landfill. Or buy meat that is just about to go past it use by date and eat or freeze immediately (freeze up to 2-3 months).

You can also watch a short clip by the NSW Food Authority about the difference between the two date marks if you like: