Stop wasting food: A guide to shelf life claims

Best before”, “use by“, “expiry date” – there are many different claims to indicate the perishability of food. Do you know the meaning of every claim? Let’s take you on a guided tour which will help you avoid wasting food

The good news is that you don’t always have to dispose of everything immediately if the date has passed by one day. This is certainly not the case with products that have a “best before” date. This information is often confused with the expiration date

Nevertheless, you should always keep an eye on your stock. A warehouse management system (WMS) offers useful support and ideally informs you about what has to go soon due to perishability. Many foods can be saved by preparing or freezing them in time. So what do the different terms mean?

Best before

A “best before” or “best by” date indicates when the durable life period of the food ends. By then, the product should be of high quality regarding its freshness, taste, and nutritional value. It does not necessarily mean that it cannot be used anymore. Professional cooks can use their senses to check. How does the product look like? How is the smell? Is the taste still as it should be? If the quality is not reaching the standard anymore, it has to go. In any case: “If in doubt, throw it out!” 

Best before dates refer to food quality like freshness, texture, flavour, and nutritional value. They are not about safety.  

Use by

Other than “best before” a “use by” date is a safety date. This label is mostly found on perishable goods such as fish, meat, or dairy products. Do not use them after this date has passed. The food might still look fresh and smell normal, but it could still be contaminated with harmful bacteria which you can neither see nor smell.  Using it will put you at risk of food poisoning.  

A “use by” date is the most important date to remember. Don’t process food after this date. Instead, better cook or freeze it before. 

Expiry date

Certain foods require the indication of a product expiry date. Contrary to what many people think, it is not the same as a “best by”. This mainly concerns formulated liquid diets, foods sold by a pharmacist, meal replacements, nutritional supplements, and infant formula. Their special nutritional compositions might change after time. Therefore, the product can no longer be utilised after expiry. 

If food has passed its expiration date it cannot be used and needs to be discarded.

Packaging date

Packaging dates are often used on retail-packaged food. You will find it for example on meat or fresh ready meals in the supermarket. The “packaged on” data needs to be combined with a durable life period. This can either be made by a “use by” date or by indicating the number of days.  

Please consider: “Best before”, “use by” and expiry dates only apply to unopened products. As soon as you open it, you have to follow further instructions like “use within three days”! 

Other frequently used expressions: “sell by” and “freeze by”

You might also read the instructions “sell by” or “freeze by” on the packaging. Both are no safety dates either. A “sell by” date indicates the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. “ Freeze by” tells you when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. This is a common practice if, contrary to expectations, a product is not needed yet. A lot of food, including meat and milk, can be frozen, so plan ahead in your food and beverage management

How long can you normally keep food in the fridge?

All the available data and, often, experience also shows us how long certain foods can be kept. The chart below summarises the storage time of commonly refrigerated foods:

Especially for professional kitchens, it is incredibly important to know the common shelf lives and their corresponding claims.  This applies to restaurants and hotels as well as canteens and the entire food processing industry. 

But knowing the dates and keeping track of them are two different things. How can this be achieved? Regular stock checks are one way. Methods such as FIFO (first in, first out) also contribute to this, because here the products that need to be consumed first are at the front of the shelf. 

Both methods have one thing in common: they rely on the human factor. And it is well known that people make mistakes. 

What would it be like to have an inventory management system that not only informs chefs and supply managers about inventory levels, but also reminds them of expiry dates? 

That may sound like a dream of the future. But in fact it is already possible. Storate gives a 24/7 visibility on the remaining shelf life of each item of your stock. 

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