What’s the difference between “use by” and “best before” dates?

There is a critical difference between “use by” and “best before”, and it is what is happening to the food as it ages.

For “use by” items, there is potentially an increasing amount of harmful bacteria or toxins that will be detrimental to your health. If left too long, you will end up with food poisoning.

For “best before” items, the quality of the item is deteriorating. “Quality” includes taste, texture, flavor, and colour. The point is that you won’t end up sick if you eat it, but you may not enjoy the experience. “Best Before” items may still eventually perish and become hazardous, but it will take substantially longer.

Also keep in mind that these dates have strict conditions that go with them. For “use by”, there are typically limitations on the temperature and usually a requirement for being stored below 5°C. If it is kept at a higher temperature then the “use by” date is reduced. We have probably all left the milk out for the day and returned to a chunky mess.

At the same time, freezing an item will also significantly increase its life. We will all defrost meat weeks after the use-by date.

Will an item instantly perish the day after the “use by” or “best before” date?

In the case of both, these dates are based on how the manufacturer can guarantee that the item will be good on that date. For “use by” it means “you can eat it on this day and you will not get food poisoning (provided you stored it correctly)”. So chances are you can eat it the following day and it will be fine. And the next. In fact, they leave themselves a reasonable buffer, not so that you can eat it the day after, but so you can leave it out of the fridge a little bit and still be safe. But for each day after, your risk of food poisoning is increasing.

If, however, it’s your packet of chocolate coated biscuits, each day after the “best before” means the quality drops just a bit. I’m not sure what “quality” means when you are talking about lollies, and I’m not sure if kids really care. We do know, however, that chocolate turning white is still edible in times of desperation.

We also know that leaving chocolate coated biscuits in the car means that they are no longer presentable, and you will probably end up with just a single lumpy one. Quality shot – but still safe to eat.

Is it legal to sell items past their “use by” and “best before” dates?

Items with a “use by” date must not be sold AFTER the use by date. It can be sold on the day of the use by date but not after.

Most items with a use by date also need to be stored below 5°C. Leaving them above 5°C may mean you will need to consume them immediately or dispose of it. If you are storing potentially hazardous foods, we obviously recommend the use of temperature loggers to ensure that your fridges are working and comply with the standards.

It’s actually still legal to sell it beyond the “best before” date provided it has not spoiled and complies with any other applicable legislation. That’s good news for “The Dutch Shop” where “on sale” is usually a euphemism for “out of date”.

Can you get food poisoning from an item before the “use by” or “best before” date?


But chances are it is because of you.

Opening the packet automatically voids the use by and best before dates. You have now exposed the item to the air, and more importantly, to bacteria.

Handling the opened item just makes it worse. Just ask my kids who like to reach half way into a loaf of bread why the end always ends up moldy.

Exposing the item to warm temperatures is bad, and leaving it in a hot car is really bad.

Sneezing on it isn’t the best idea either.

Or letting rats have nibble.

Hopefully you get the idea. These dates only work on unopened items that have been stored correctly.

Need more information?

Click here to get the information straight from the horse’s mouth.