Use by and best before dates for effective stock control

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The Food Standards Agency and Defra have published new guidance to help the food industry decide whether their products require a 'use by' or 'best before' date. There has been much confusion on the difference in the dates and what is required and what is best practice. 

The Food Standards Agency state that under the new voluntary guidelines, food packaging should only use either ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date labels to make it easier for shoppers to know when food is at its best and how long it is safe to eat.   ‘Sell by’ and ‘display until’ labels used for stock rotation should be removed to avoid confusion for shoppers, with different ways of tracking stock control explored by retailers. 

There are two types of durability indication and the FSA define the 'best before’ date will be appropriate for the vast majority of foods and indicates the period for which a food can reasonably be expected to retain its optimal condition or in other words, it will not be stale.   'Best before' dates relate to food quality, including taste, texture and appearance. Eating food past its 'best before' date is unlikely to be harmful.

The 'use by’ date is the required form of date mark for those foods which are highly perishable from a microbiological point of view. These foods are likely after a relatively short period, present a risk of food poisoning, and so this date relates to the safety of the food.  'Use by' date is the most important date for people to consider, as these relate to food safety. A product with a ‘use by’ date cannot be sold after that date and should not be used after midnight of that day.

While it is an offence to sell food after the 'use by' date, retailers can, with the exception of eggs, sell products after the 'best before' date, providing it is safe to eat. Eggs have a 'best before' date, but should not be eaten after the date shown on the label.   Retailers often use 'sell by' and 'display until' dates on their shelves, but these are not required by law and are used mainly for stock control purposes.

The date mark is mandatory and must comply with clear labelling requirements and be conspicuous, legible and indelible. Black inkjet on a dark green background, for example, is not acceptable; nor ink-jet onto pictures or other writing which would make it difficult to read.

It is the responsibility of those originally labelling the food, namely the manufacturer, packer or EU seller, to set the appropriate durability indication or date marks, together with the storage instructions required to achieve that shelf life. In practice, the brand owner will be involved in decisions about the setting of the date mark.

Where a food business has insufficient resources to determine which date marks should apply, it is recommended that expert advice is sought, for example, from a specialist food consultant or their Local Authority who can direct them to an appropriate expert source.  It is an offence to alter or remove a date mark if you are not the manufacturer, packer or EU seller originally responsible for marking the food unless each alteration is authorised by the person originally responsible for setting the date mark.

When you have food you must practice effective stock rotation to avoid new stock being used before older stock and ensure that displayed food is removed when past its date.  You can help the quality of the stock you use and sell by ensuring the quality of what you buy and only buying from reputable suppliers.

You need to ensure that when food is delivered to you or from your business to the customer, that it is transported in accordance with the recommended guidelines to avoid problems in transport causing the food to be affected like transport temperature. Food can also be damaged if not transported in the correct way.

Spoiled food must be managed and disposed of correctly. It is important to visually check food and smell it to help identify if it is spoiled. The colour and texture is also an indicator of problems and water around the food which has been produced as it becomes spoiled.   Finally, spoiled, damaged or out of date food must be disposed of in accordance with local regulations.