Use By, Best Before & Sell By Dates

My mother accidentally gave me food poisoning. She fed me baby carrots for a snack before Christmas dinner – but they had expired in June! I threw up for the next 24 hours.

Busy Phillips

Food labelling can be confusing, especially around the dates that we find stamped on them. Best Before, Use By, Sell By…. so similar yet mean different things. I will try to break them down and explain them for you.

Best Before

This date is all about the quality of the food, and not so much the safety. It may say Best Before or Best Before End.

If you eat the food before this date you’ll be eating it at it’s best in terms of flavour and texture. For example, fruit and vegetables may start to lose their ripeness after this date. Tinned or dried foods will also have this date. Although they last much longer than fresh foods, there will still be a time where it’s not so good to eat.

You won’t do yourself any harm eating after this date, it just won’t taste as good as it would before if you’ve stored it correctly. 

Use By

This date is about safety. You’ll find it on foods like fresh meat and fish.

If you store the food correctly it will be safe to eat until the Use By date, but after that you risk food poisoning. Once this date has passed you should not eat the food.

Two bottles of milk on a table

Sell By

This one is a bit confusing to you as someone shopping, because it is really there to help the shop keep their shelves stocked correctly. You don’t need to worry about this date when wondering whether or not to eat something. 

The Smell Test

Lots of people say that if it doesn’t smell bad then it’s still fine to eat, despite the Use By date, but don’t be tempted to do this. There will be times where food is not safe to eat even though they smell fine. There are bacteria that you just cannot smell if they are present. It’s not worth the risk.

And Drinks?

What about drinks? Yes, the dates apply in the same way for these too. Stick to the dates on the bottles and cartons to be on the safe side.


Remember, all of this applies if you are storing your food correctly. You can prolong the life of some foods by freezing them, and again the label on the package should tell you how long you can safely freeze it for.

Ultimately, if we can consider what we are going to eat in advance we can help reduce the amount of food that we have that passes these dates. If you know what you need, you can buy what you need, and throw away less food. This can only be a good thing right?