Are You Up To Date On Food Labels?

Confused by all that packaging saying 'Sell by', 'Use until' and 'Best before'? We look at the health effects of eating food past its official date.

Fridges piled high with mouldy cheese, wilted lettuce and psychedelic-looking slices of meat have always been the trademark of a typical student household.

But they could now be cropping up among everyday consumers who can't be bothered with all the "use by", "best before", "sell by" and "display until" dates stamped on their food packaging.

But knowing what's what could save your life, as eating food that's gone off can lead to health problems ranging from light stomach cramps to fatal E.coli poisoning.

Tens of thousands of Australians go down with food poisoning every year and more than 100 people will die from it.

And then there's all the food waste. According to action group Do Something, Australians spend over $5 billion a year on food that is bought and then thrown away - on average $555 worth of food per household!

Some of this wastage is down to poor food storage and confusion over food labelling. Two labels - 'use by' and 'best before' - are required under Australian legislation and these are for you, the consumer.

Still confused? Then follow our guide to knowing how to tell your dates apart.

:: Use by

This is the only date you really need to look for, as 'use by' means exactly that. And you don't have to eat it before that date: you have until the end of that day to consume (or freeze) the product.

The 'use by' date is a safety measure on food and drinks that are easily perishable, like dairy, soft cheeses, ready-prepared salads, fish and cooked meats.

While you might think risking a day beyond the date is fine, don't trust your nose or eyes on these foods as looks can be deceiving. Most food bugs aren't visible to the eye and don't smell of anything either.

'Use by' dates are determined in relation to the growth of potential germs on the food, such as E.coli, salmonella or listeria.

Eating the food within the 'use by' date means that the germs won't have had a chance to grow to a potentially dangerous rate. But eat it past the date, and your health may be at risk.

:: Best before

These dates relate to food quality, not safety, and can usually be found on frozen, dried or canned foods such as breads, cakes and rice - foods that normally have a longer shelf life.

Eggs are the only food whose 'best before' label should be viewed as a 'use by' date, as they can contain salmonella bacteria, which can start to multiply after this date.

:: Food storage sense

Most of us think that popping anything in the fridge will make it last longer, but many foods are wasted every year because we don't know how to properly store them.

While some things are better are in the fridge, others are best in the cupboard. And learning what should go where will make your food last the longest, says eco chef Arthur Potts Dawson.

"When you put away your shopping, make a list of the dates by which perishable food has to be eaten," he advises.

"If things change during your week and you can't stick to your plan as a result, cook the food and freeze it, rather than throwing it in the bin."

Food Wise ( has some great tips on understanding labels and advice on how to use your store cupboards, fridge and freezer at their most efficient, but here are some quick tips to help you get started:

:: Fruit

While many of us keep apples in a fruit-bowl, they last around two weeks longer in the fridge, research has found.

That said, bananas should always be kept out of the fridge, as they tend to go black in colder temperatures.

:: Bread

A vast quantity of bread gets thrown out when we could just freeze it and use what we need when we need it.

For those of you looking to reduce mould on your bread, however, don't place your loaf in the fridge.

The fridge actually causes the starch to break down faster and make the bread deteriorate, so always store your bread either in the larder or in the freezer.

:: Meats, fish and cheeses

As long as you put meat and fish in the freezer by the end of the 'use by' date, it can last for months.

Cheese is also good to store in the freezer, whether it's a block or a few gratings. If you've got the end of some cheese that you'd like to use, grate it, put in a bag, and use it as a pizza or pasta topping later.

:: Dealing with waste

A better understanding of food labels not only keeps Australia healthy, it also cuts down on the environmental impacts of food waste.

Food waste contributes around 13.5 million tonnes of CO2 greenhouse emissions per year! Most food that is thrown out ends up in landfill, where it produces methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than CO2.

Find out how easy it is to safely consume the food you buy and limit your food waste by visiting

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1 comment
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Posted by RoboReport
I've always to be one to smell the milk the day after the use by date thinking its Ok, I think I'll use it before then or throw it out after reading this.