Understanding food packaging labels

Food labelling terms

Food labels can help us choose a healthier diet,make sure our foods are safe to eat and in turn help us avoid food waste. We’ve pulled together information from a few sources which we think cover the basics and will help you to make the decision which is right for you.

Let’s start with, what is shelf-life?

Regulations require that the shelf-life of a foodstuff be indicated by either a date of minimum durability (‘best before’) or a ‘use by’ date which moves us nicely onto, you guessed it.

Use by and best before

Use by

“Use by” dates are the most important date to consider, as these relate to food safety.

You’ll see “use by” dates on food that goes off quickly, such as smoked fish, meat products and ready-prepared salads.

For the “use by” date to be a valid guide, you must follow storage instructions such as “keep in a refrigerator”.

Once a food with a “use by” date on it has been opened, you also need to follow any instructions, such as “eat within 3 days of opening”.

If a food can be frozen, its life can be extended beyond the “use by” date, meaning you are avoiding food wastage.

Best before

“Best before” dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods.

“Best before” dates are about quality, not safety. When the date is passed, it doesn’t mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture.

Every year, we throw away more than 1 million tonnes of food and drink in Ireland, most of which could have been eaten. So think carefully before throwing away food past its “best before” date.

Remember, the “best before” date will only be accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the label, such as “store in a cool dry place” or “keep in the fridge once opened”.

For more information on preventing food waste visit stopfoodwaste.ie.

The difference between use by and best before dates