There is a tremendous amount of confusion about when products are safe to use and when they are not, and this confusion is leading to many of us chucking products in the bin when they are still safe to use. The government has pledged to tackle this waste, and is seeking a move to a clearer form of labelling on both food and cosmetic products, which have recently started to feature similar use by data. So how do you know when something is safe to use and something is not?
A sell-by date doesn’t tell you anything. Sell-by dates are put on by the retailers or the food manufacturers as an indication when something should be taken off the shelves. A sell-by date is found on products that have a short lifespan and do not spend long on the supermarket shelves, so products such as fresh meat, bread, or fruit.
Sell-by dates are not found on longer life tinned products or cosmetic products such as your favorite Butter London lip gloss or nail varnish. It is perfectly safe to eat a product that has passed its sell-by date, as long as it is within the use-by period.
As a consumer, use-by dates should be the dates we are looking at rather than the sell-by dates. A use-by date is usually a few days later than a sell-by date and means that this date should use the product. The manufacturers put use-by dates on short shelf-life products like yogurt and meat, and these are the one date which should be adhered to.
Products can go off very quickly, and there are real food poisoning risks in eating meat, shellfish, or dairy products that have passed their use-by date. If you have bought a joint of meat or some vegetables which are fast approaching their sell-by date, they can be frozen and defrosted to use at a later date.
Best before is another one of those terms which indicates a product’s freshness, but needn’t be stuck to rigidly. A can of beans, which is labeled Best Before December 2014, isn’t going to kill you if you ate it on January 1, 2015. All the manufacturer is saying is that after the stated date, the product may begin to lose flavor, and it is best to eat it sooner rather than later. A product which is several years past its best before date should be discarded.
On cosmetics such as the Butter London lip gloss, labeling is different. The labels show a little pot with a number above it, typically 6, 12, 18, or 24. These are the number of months which the product can be safely used for. Some cosmetic products such as mascaras can be a breeding ground for germs, and you don’t want to be sticking a five-year-old mascara wand near your eyes.