NEARLY half of consumers ignore use-by dates on food with experts warning they are putting their health at risk, a report has revealed.
A survey conducted by the Food Safety Authority Ireland (FSAI) found that 46pc of people had no problem eating food past the use-by or best-before date.
One in three people also claimed they would eat food past expiry if it looked and smelt edible.
But FSAI experts warned of the dangers and urged food companies to ensure the shelf life of their products was clearly and accurately marked.
Dr Wayne Anderson, food science and standards director, said food may be badly contaminated even if it appeared good enough to eat.
"We would caution people to be careful in this regard as food products contaminated with harmful bacteria may look okay and taste and smell no different when they have gone beyond their use-by date," he said.
Use-by and best-before dates on food packaging differ. Best-before refers to the date until which the food retains its specific properties. The health benefits of vegetables, for example, are greater prior to the best-before date but they may still be okay to eat for a period afterwards.
Use-by, however, refers to perishable foods which, after their expiry, can be dangerous from a microbiological point of view.
Dr Anderson said the statistics unveiled by the FSAI research were worrying.
"It is somewhat alarming that five out of 10 people are misunderstanding the meaning of use-by and best-before, and this may be the reason why almost half of people think it's okay to eat foods after the use-by date has expired," he said.
As such, Dr Anderson said it was important that food businesses set shelf life details accurately for every food.
"The food industry must have a valid basis for setting the date they put on their products," he continued.
"Use-by dates must be set on the basis of safety and best-before dates must be set on the basis of quality.
"Consumers have to be able to trust the use-by dates on their foods and know that the food is safe if eaten before the use-by date."
He added: "The FSAI continues to monitor how companies set shelf life so food labels continue to provide clear, accurate information to help consumers store, prepare and consume food appropriately and safely."
The nationwide study, which saw 1,000 consumers surveyed, revealed that while people might eat food past its expiry date, many were conscious of use-by and best-before dates.
Some 80pc of people admitted to going to the back of the fridge in a shop to get the product with the longest shelf life, while 39pc said they would not use foods that had passed the best-before date even if it looked and smelt fine.