A way to help food businesses know when to apply the “use by” or “best before” date on products has been developed by European experts.

The “use by” date is about safety – foods can be eaten until this date but not after, even if they look and smell fine. “Best before” refers to quality – the food will be safe to eat after this date but may not be at its peak quality.

Marketing of food beyond the “best before” date is allowed in some countries with the seller being responsible provided the food is fit for human consumption. Because of variability between products and consumer habits, experts at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) could not give time limits for food donated or marketed past the “best before” date.

Help making decisions
The tool is a decision tree of 10 questions for food company officials to help them decide whether a “use by” or “best before” date should be used. A decision on the type of date marking needs to be on a product‐by‐product basis, considering the relevant hazards, product characteristics, processing and storage conditions, according to those who developed the tool.

Topics covered include frozen storage of the product, if the food gets a validated lethal treatment, the potential for recontamination before packing, a validated post‐lethality treatment, if the product supports growth or toxin production of pathogenic bacteria and additional hurdles such as preservatives or storage atmosphere. Examples are given for dairy and meat products as well as fruits and vegetables.

For products processed in a way that eliminates pathogenic microorganisms and avoids recontamination, or which do not support their growth, the risk to consumer health would not increase during shelf‐life and a “best before” date is appropriate.

If there is no pathogen elimination step, or the possibility of recontamination after such a treatment, and the product supports the growth of pathogens, the consumer risk is expected to increase during shelf‐life and a “use by” date is required.

Tackling food waste
The European Commission estimated in 2018 that up to 10 percent of the 88 million tons of food waste generated annually in the EU is linked to date marking on food products.

In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said consumer uncertainty about the meaning of dates on labels of packaged foods is believed to contribute to about 20 percent of food waste in a U.S. home. The U.S. government has a goal of reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030.

Kostas Koutsoumanis, chair of EFSA’s Panel on Biological Hazards, said: “Clear and correct information on packaging and a better understanding and use of date marking on food by all actors can help reduce food waste in the EU, while continuing to ensure food safety.”

Experts also reviewed the important factors for food businesses when setting a shelf-life date. When doing this, firms need to consider reasonably foreseeable conditions of distribution, storage and use of the food.

EFSA’s panel on Biological Hazards will publish an opinion next year about information given to consumers on storage conditions, time limits for consumption after opening, and thawing practices.

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