Is it safe to eat food after the best-before and use-by dates?

Retailers and new app making it easier to prevent waste and save money

(Image credit: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

Co-op’s East of England division is the latest UK retailer to sell food past its best-before date to reduce waste - and the trend is expanding globally.

A Danish charity, Wefood, opened Denmark’s first food surplus supermarket in 2016 in the capital, Copenhagen, selling produce at 30% to 50% less than standard supermarket prices. The idea took off in the UK that same year, when a retailer in Dover, Kent, set up Niftie’s to sell items that are either damaged or past their best-before dates, with most prices between 10p and 70p. France took action in 2016 as well, banning supermarkets from throwing away unsold food and requiring them instead to donate unwanted items to charities and food banks.

Now a Danish app is taking the concept to the next level. First developed in 2015, the Too Good To Go app has spread to six countries, The Copenhagen Post reports. The app allows users to order surplus food from thousands of shops, bakeries, hotels, restaurants and cafes, and then pick it up an hour before closing time for a maximum price of £3.80. According to Danish news channel TV 2 Nyheder, so far the app has prevented two million portions of food from going to waste.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

But is it safe to eat food that would have once have been binned?

Understanding use-by dates

What consumers need to be concerned with are use-by dates, say experts.

“Ultimately, they are there to tell us when foods pose a health risk, particularly when it comes to fresh, perishable ingredients,” The Daily Telegraph explains. “Ignore use-by dates and, according to the NHS, you could be setting yourself up for a severe bout of food poisoning, an illness that has over 5.5 million of us rushing to the bathroom every year.”

Legally, food with a use-by date cannot be sold or redistributed after that date, and should not be used after midnight of that day, even if it looks and smells fine.

Best-before quality

Best-before dates are different to use-by dates and can include tinned, frozen or dried foods.

The UK’s Food Standards Agency says products past their best-before date are safe to eat, although they may not be at the optimum quality, The Guardian reports. But how long do they stay safe?

“If you keep food under perfect conditions, it’s usually safe for at least a few days after its use-by date,” The Daily Telegraph says.

Some food may last longer, but it is a matter of common sense - how does the food look and smell? Produce that is salty (such as pickles), very sugary (jam and honey), fermented or dried (oatcakes, crackers and biscuits), are generally low risk, the Telegraph adds.

Waste not, want not

Research has found that best-before dates are confusing to some consumers. One in four Britons bin food that is safe to eat because they mistakenly believe it is risky to feed their families food approaching or on its best-before date, according to online retailer Approved Food. As a nation, we throws away nearly 122 million items of food every month as a result of confusion over food labelling, the retailer adds - an annual total of nearly 1.5 billion food items.

Every day UK consumers throw away “an astonishing six million potatoes, three million apples, one million bananas, a million unopened yoghurt pots and almost half a million ready meals”, the Daily Mirror reports.

About one-third of the food produced globally for human consumption every year - about 1.3 billion tons - goes to waste, according to the United Nations.

Co-op’s initiative alone has the potential to save at least two tons of food from its 125 stores being wasted every year, adds the Daily Mail.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.