Eat it or Bin it Guide to Best Before and Use By Dates

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No matter how well organised your kitchen cupboards and fridge are, you'll still find food that's gone out of date.  So, should you throw it away or cross your fingers and tuck in?

What the Dates Mean

Best Before - is used on foods that may not taste or look as good beyond their expiry date, but won't be harmful.  However, you can't rely on 'best before' dates if the packaging has been damaged, and you must treat it as a perishable product (something which goes off after a day or two) after opening.

Use By - is found on much more risky foods that could cause food poisoning.  But manufacturers allow a margin of safety, and if the food has been kept under perfect conditions, its usually safe for longer.  Remember that badly kept food can also go off before its 'use by' date, so let your eyes and nose guide you.

The following is a guide to some of the standard foods kept in most kitchens.  Its set into three categories - safe, take care and throw it away.  Please remember though that this is a guide only, and you have to be sensible and make your own mind up about the food.

ALWAYS abide by the expiry dates if:

  • You don't have good sight and a keen sense of smell - these are key to detecting food that's off
  • Your fridge isn't below 5 degrees C - preferably keep it between 0 and 2 degrees C.  Buy a fridge thermometer to check
  • Its very hot weather
  • You are not sure whether its ok or not
Foods that MAY be safe:

Dairy Products - There's no need to throw it away just because the date is up.  Check by smelling it instead.  If a yoghurt isn't 'blown out' (when fermentation causes the air to expand and push against the foil top) and doesn't taste tangy, it should be ok

Bread - you can ignore the date if the bread isn't mouldy.  Even if you eat a tiny bit of mould by accident, its unlikely to make you ill.  But moulds can sometimes form toxins - so don't eat bread if its obviously green!

Cans and Jars - Unopened, these will last indefinitely (or until they become rusty or punctured).  The flavour may change beyond the 'best before' date, but that's all that will happen

Orange Juice - As long as it's not fermenting and fizzy (this can lower the acidity and allow bugs to breed) it should be safe

Frozen food - The flavour of frozen food in your freezer will deteriorate, but providing it stays at -18 degrees C (and hasn't been thawed and re-frozen), it will stay safe

Biscuits and crisps - Crisps can become rancid and biscuits may get soft, but taste them before you chuck them away because exceeding the date usually isn't a problem

Foods that you should TAKE CARE with

Bagged Salad - If it looks fresh and there's no slime or discolouration, you can eat it a day or so after its 'use by' date.  But wash as a precaution and don't take these risks if you're pregnant.  Listeria - which can harm unborn children - can grow in salads even at fridge temperatures

Ready Meals - A meal that's been kept really cold is usually fine 24 hours beyone the 'use by' date - but give it a little longer in the microwave when cooking

Fresh Fish and Meat - Meat and Fish that's after its 'use by' date, but still smells good, won't make you ill as long as you cook it thoroughly (for meat, use a thermometer to check).  But you'll need to take extra care to wash your hands and utensils, which may have higher than normal bacterial loads

Eggs - Lion marked eggs can last for two or three weeks beyond their 'best before' date if kept refridgerated (check an egg is fresh by putting it in a jug of water - it should stay at the bottom, not float).  Don't keep eggs without the lion stamp - they may be growing salmonella.  Only Lion eggs are guaranteed to come from birds vaccinated against this bug

Foods that should be THROWN AWAY

Cooked, chilled chicken - If there's been improper storage or handling along the way, certain toxin producing bacteria may have got to work.  They can still cause illness even if you heat before you eat, so your only defense is to store properly and eat before the given date

Ham - The modified atmosphere packaging used for chilled meats kills spoilage bacteria, which means you don't get the usual 'gone off' signs that might signify its harmful to eat.  So don't risk eating beyone the 'use by' date

When asked about yoghurts, milk, bread and orange juice, the Food Standards Agency confirmed that its unlikely these would cause illness.  According to a spokesperson "The majority of these foods would just experience spoilage rather than any pathogen (harmful bacteria) growth, and this is usually evident from observation

Remember though, this is a guide only .... ALWAYS abide by the expiry dates if:
  • You don't have good sight and a keen sense of smell - these are key to detecting food that's off
  • Your fridge isn't below 5 degrees C - preferably keep it between 0 and 2 degrees C.  Buy a fridge thermometer to check
  • Its very hot weather
  • You are not sure whether its ok or not
I hope you find this guide useful, and if so please be sure to vote yes

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