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'Sell by', 'Use by' and 'Best Before' Dates: What's the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

  • Reducing Food Waste
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Sell by, use by, and best before: when it comes to the dates on our food, many of us play it safe and throw it away if it is past the one that's printed the largest. But, when £13 billion worth of food – a whopping 7.3m tonnes – is thrown away by UK households every year, is it really best to throw away perfectly fine food just to avoid any uncertainty? When it comes to making the most of the food you buy, understanding the difference between a sell by date, a use by date, and a best before date will make it easier to work out if your food is safe to eat. We've put together this handy guide to help you judge if your fresh food is safe to eat, along with some handy tips on how to make it last that little bit longer.

What Does It Mean?

Sell By Date

If you're using the 'sell by' date to work out if your lettuce belongs in your goat's cheese salad or in the bin, then you're likely wasting a lot of good lettuce. The sell by date is only designed to be used by retailers, to help shop staff with stock rotation and indicate when it should be reduced for a quick sale. They aren't required by law and aren't designed to be used by customers to judge when food should and shouldn't be eaten. If it's past the sell by date, check to see if there's another date indicating when it should be eaten by.

Use By Date

When it comes to deciding if food is safe to eat or not, use by dates are the ones you want to stick to. Usually seen on fresh food that goes off quickly such as smoked fish and ready-to-eat salad, use by dates indicate that food should not be eaten past that date. Even if the food looks and smells fine, you could be putting your health at risk by eating these foods when they're out of date. If it's past its use by date, don't risk it.

differences-food-expiration-dates-1.jpgReduce food waste by understanding expiration dates.

Best Before Date

Best before dates literally mean what they say: this food will be at its best before this date. After that date, the quality of the food will begin to deteriorate, but may still be edible. Usually, when the date has passed, the food will not be harmful, but may have lost some texture and flavour. Think carefully before throwing away food that has passed its best before date, as this is one of the reasons so much perfectly-edible food is thrown away in the UK. Also, bear in mind that only food that has been stored correctly will have an accurate best before date, so make sure it goes in the fridge or a dark cupboard if it says it should on the packaging.

How Can You Beat the Dates?

So, you've done the big food shop and you know what all the different dates mean, but you're not sure if you'll be able to eat all the food in time. What now? Well, this is where our top tips come in. We've rounded up a few ways you can make your fresh foods last a little longer, from popping them in the freezer to trying out exciting storage solutions like vacuum sealing.

make-the-most-food-dates-2.jpgSome food dates indicate food safety, while others relate to quality. Know the difference for happy, healthy meals.


When it comes to making dairy products last that little bit longer, the freezer is your best friend. Cheese, yoghurt and milk can all be frozen as they near their expiry date and defrosted for use when you need them. Amazingly, even eggs can be frozen for safe eating. Just crack them into a container, whisk the yolks and the whites together, and pop them in the freezer to be defrosted for use in things like cake batter. If you're someone that eats a lot of uncooked cheese, you might be put off by the texture change that can occasionally result from freezing. Vacuum sealing cheese is a great way to make it last longer in the fridge, extending its average life from a couple of weeks to between four and eight months.

Fruit and Veg

Fruit and veg is another thing that benefits from vacuum sealing, which can extend the shelf life of things like lettuce and berries from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Some fruit and veg is also suitable for freezing and can be cooked straight from frozen. Alternatively, freeze a mixture of berries and whizz them in the blender straight from the freezer to make a delicious frozen smoothie!

know-food-date-differences-3Know the difference between 'best by', 'sell by' and 'use by' dates for always-fresh food.


Fish can last an additional month in the freezer if you put it in before its use by date. Most types of fish will need to be thoroughly defrosted and cooked through before they are eaten. A handy trick for fish is to vacuum pack it before you freeze it, which can extend its shelf life in the freezer by as much as two years. There's no excuse to throw away that leftover cod fillet anymore!


Like fish, meat will also need freezing before its use by date, after which it shouldn't be eaten if it has only been kept in the fridge. Frozen, it can last up to six months, depending on what is indicated on the packaging. You can also extend the time it can be safely stored in the freezer for by vacuum sealing it first. Meat that has been vacuum packed and then frozen can last up to three years.

If you want to reduce your household food waste and shopping bill by making the things you buy last a little longer, why not check out FoodSaver's range of storage solutions? You can see the full collection on the FoodSaver website.