Ciska de Rijk and Gwendoline Keel, food law specialists at Simpson Grierson, explain the law around ‘best-before’ and ‘use-by’ dates.
Food wastage is something most of us want to avoid. Consumers collectively throw away millions of dollars each year in ‘best-before’ goods that are still safe to eat, according to international pressure groups.
What’s the law got to say?
Most food we buy must carry a date mark on it by law.
There are two types of date markings — a ‘use-by’ and a ‘best-before’ date. Which one is needed will depend on either the quality attributes of the food and the length of time a food should keep before it begins to deteriorate (‘best before’), or health and safety considerations in terms of when the food will become less nutritious and/or unsafe (‘use by’). The food producer also must include how the food should be stored. Date markings must also be in a certain format, so that it is obvious which number is the day, month or year. Food producers can be fined up to $450 for each offence if the date marking isn’t in the required format.
What’s the difference between a use-by and best-before date?
A best-before date is the date up to which the food will remain saleable and retain its qualities if kept in its original packaging and the storage conditions are followed. Quality attributes include colour, taste, texture, and flavour. Food can still legally be sold after its best-before date, as long as it is not spoiled and complies with any other applicable legislation, for example, it is not damaged and/or unfit for human consumption. Many food stores and supermarkets will sell these foods at a discount. A food that has passed its best-before date may still be safe to eat, but its quality may have diminished.
A use-by date is the date after which the food should not be consumed because of health or safety reasons. This includes foods such as meat, and dairy and deli products. Food can’t legally be sold after its use-by date.
What are the exceptions?
The only food allowed to have a different type of date mark is bread, which can have a ‘baked-for’ or ‘baked-on’ date if its shelf life is less than seven days.
Some foods do not have to carry date markings at all. Date markings aren’t required where the best-before date for a food is two years or more (except infant formula), or where the food is individual portions of ice cream or ice confection.
Also, food in very small packages don’t have to have date markings, unless the food should be consumed before a certain date for health or safety reasons.
What’s up overseas?
Food wastage is a hot topic overseas. Increased pressure has resulted in law changes in many countries with the intention of reducing food waste. Italy’s new laws include the removal of sanctions for giving away food past its sell-by date. France has banned supermarkets from throwing away food, requiring them to donate unsold food to charities instead. The UK Government has launched an inquiry into reducing food waste in Britain. While the New Zealand Government has not indicated any interest in introducing similar laws, food waste movement proponents are gaining momentum and it may just be a matter of time before we follow suit. Watch this space!