Which date do you need? Use by or best before?

Which date do you need? Use by or best before?

Unsure whether your company’s food or beverage products need a best before or a use-by date code? This quick Q&A will help.

Q. Why do we need date codes?

A. Food and beverages need date codes for health and safety, so consumers know how long they can keep an item before it begins to deteriorate or could be unsafe to consume; therefore, they must be indelible and visible. (A secondary benefit is for retailers, who use date marks on secondary packaging to ensure better stock turnaround and reduce food wastage.)

Q. Whose responsibility are they?

A. In Australia, it’s the manufacturer’s or food supplier’s responsibility to determine product shelf life. According to the Food Standards Code, all packaged foods with a shelf life of less than two years must have a date mark. Which one you need depends on the type of food or beverage.

Q. What is a use-by date?

A. Items with use-by dates must be consumed before that date expires. After then, they may be unsafe to eat, even if they look and smell ‘okay’. Neither can food legally be sold after the use-by date expires.

Q. When do I need one?

A. Perishable food items need a use-by date. This includes most dairy (milk, soft cheese, etc), meats, ready-prepared salads and prepared fish (such as smoked salmon).

Q. What is a best-before date?

A. This indicates the date from which the item’s quality begins to deteriorate from its peak. Typically these foods are still safe to consume after that date and will retain their colour, taste, texture and flavour (if they’ve been stored properly). As a rule, if the food looks and smells as the consumer expects, it should be safe to eat — even after the best before date. Foods with a best before date can still be sold after that date (provided they’re still fit for human consumption).

Q. When do I need a best before date?

A. Foods that tend to last longer, such as frozen foods, cereals, biscuits, sauces, confectionery, dried goods, sugar, flour, etc, take a best before date.

Q. Are there exceptions to the rules?

A. Of course! Some foods don’t require any date mark. These include: bread, which can be labelled with an individual “baked on” or “baked for” date if its shelf life is less than 7 days, and where the best before date is 2+ years, such as canned foods. It’s also important to note if product needs specific storage conditions to reach its best before or use-by date (eg, “This milk should be kept refrigerated”.)

Q. Which technology can I use for date coding?

A. This will depend on your packaging type and production environment. Some of the most popular technologies include small character continuous inkjet (CIJ), drop-on-demand inkjet printers (DOD), thermal transfer overprinter (TTO) and laser.

Q. Where can I find more information?

A. The Food Standards Code clearly sets out all the regulations. Double-check the code if you’re in doubt.

Image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Neustockimages

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