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Explainer: Is it ever safe to eat food after its ‘use by’ date?

Many people are quick to bin food once its ‘best before’ date has come, however there is a big difference between this and a ‘use by’ date, so many of us are likely throwing out food prematurely


Stock image

Stock image

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A ‘best before’ date represents the quality of the food, so while the manufacturer may decide the item will taste best before this date, it doesn’t mean it is unsafe to eat.

What’s the difference between a ‘best before’ date and a ‘use by’ date?

Items such as fresh fruit and vegetables are usually perfectly fine to eat after their ‘best before’ date, while items such as meat and fish will have a ‘use by’ date which should be strictly followed.

A ‘use by’ date protects the consumer against risk of poisoning, and these dates must be declared on food products that, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health.

Is the ‘sniff test’ enough?

Safe Food Ireland has warned that people should never eat food that is past the ‘use by’ date, but there is wiggle room for the ‘best buy’ date.

“The ‘use by’ date is a safety measure and gives a deadline telling us when our food will become unsafe to eat,” it says.

“So even if your food passes the sniff test with flying colours, we need to stick to the ‘use by’ date rigidly as the food could still be contaminated – and make you ill.

Is there any flexibility on these dates?

“While you should never eat food past it’s ‘use by’ date, the ‘best before’ date gives you a little bit of wiggle room. It refers to quality, so food is still safe to eat after the given date, but the flavour, smell or texture may be affected. ‘Best before’ is used on foods with a longer shelf-life, like pasta, tinned foods, and breakfast cereal.

“Bacteria can’t usually grow on these foods so food poisoning is not a concern.”

How much food is wasted in Ireland?

According to research conducted by the organisation, 30pc of food purchased in Ireland is thrown away and it is estimated that households waste upwards of €20 on throwing out food.

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