A poll of adults in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland has revealed that half of them do not always check the use-by date on food before eating it.

Findings show that 44 percent view use-by dates as a useful guide and half of adults surveyed could not identify the correct definition for a use-by date. A use-by date relates to safety and can be found on meat and ready-to-eat salads. A “best-before” date is about quality and appears on frozen, dried and tinned foods.

Research also showed that 76 percent of adults have knowingly eaten food past the use-by date, with 37 percent cooking food for other people that is after this date. This rises to 43 percent of people aged 25 to 34 years old.

The online poll by Ipsos Mori was based on 2,132 respondents aged 16 to 75 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland between March 5 and 8, 2021.

A use-by date on food is about safety
More than three-quarters of people decide whether food is safe to eat by smelling it. Food safety professionals advise against using smell or appearance to determine whether food is safe.

Professor Robin May, chief scientific advisor at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), said the findings were worrying.

“They indicate that people are often confused about food dates, potentially putting themselves and others at risk of illness. A use-by date on food is there for a reason. It is about safety. After the use-by date you cannot cook, freeze or eat the food safely, even if it smells or looks OK. It’s really not possible to tell whether food is safe to eat by smelling or tasting it.”

Of those who sometimes eat food past the use-by date, 43 percent do so believing that if food is just past this date, it’s safe to eat. Over half continue to eat food past the use-by date because they’ve done it before and felt fine and 59 percent said they do it to reduce food waste.

Dawn Harper, spokesperson for the campaign, said it was important to understand that best-before and use-by dates are not the same.

“If you eat food past the use-by date it could make you or your family seriously ill. I’ve treated a number of patients for food poisoning over the years, and it can be particularly nasty to those more vulnerable to infection such as young children and elderly people.”

A previous FSA survey found almost two-thirds said they always check use-by dates before they cook or prepare food but nearly half had eaten bagged salad past the use-by date.

Smell was often used to assess raw meat and milk and yogurt. Cheese was mainly checked visually and a third wash raw chicken at least occasionally. Food safety experts discourage all of these methods.

Food in a pandemic
The FSA has also published findings of a report looking at how people’s experiences with food have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work by think tank Demos covers food insecurity, the UK food supply and diet and eating habits.

Research in November 2020 included a survey of 10,069 UK adults, an online part with 1,006 UK respondents, four workshops with 30 people, and an open access survey of 911 adults.

The poll found that 78 percent support the UK keeping its current food quality standards, even if food is more expensive and less competitive in the global market.

In the workshops, participants suggested that food standards should be non-negotiable in future trading relationships. These sessions also revealed deep concern about the impact Brexit could have on food safety standards in the UK.

Emily Miles, chief executive of the FSA, said the research shows experiences of food have diverged widely during the pandemic.

“While some have seen eating habits improve, and potentially made lifelong improvements to their diets, others have struggled to feed themselves and their families. All of us in government must now reflect on what this means for the future of food and public health,” Miles said.

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