What's the difference between the labels, 'use by' and 'best before' on food items?

by The FindLaw Team

Have you ever read food labels and thought to yourself, ‘is all the information that should be on the label, actually there’? Have you also wondered, what’s the difference between the terms, ‘best before’ and ‘use by’? Yes? No? Or were you actually thinking more about how to create that dish from the previous episode of Masterchef while shopping? Well, readers would be relieved to know that Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have Codes that protect consumers from purchasing foods that are unsafe, while also requiring food labels to be accurate and not misleading. So if you have ever been curious about how Australia’s food labelling laws operate, please continue reading.

What’s the difference between the terms ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ on food packaging?

The writer of this piece never paid much attention to what the terms, ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ meant until a violent case of food poisoning occurred after consuming a product that was out of date. Needless to say, understanding what the two terms actually mean can be the difference between a good night’s sleep, or a night where the toilet will become your constant companion.

So what is the difference between the two terms? Well, the distinctions might be small, but still significant.

Best before: foods that are labelled as best before, signifies that although the date on the package may have passed, the product is still safe to consume on the proviso the item has been stored correctly, while still generally maintaining its colour, texture and flavour. The best before date is used more to identify when the food product may lose some of its qualities, rather than being unsafe to eat.

Interestingly, foods that are affixed with a best before date can still be sold after the date, as long as the item has not been damaged, deteriorated, or perished completely. Additionally, if the best before date is two or more years down the track, the Code does not require that the best before date to be printed on the packaging.

Use by: foods that have a use by date are generally regarded as unsafe to eat after the designated date because a build-up of bad bacteria may have occurred – even if the food in question still looks and smells good enough to consume. Additionally, it is also illegal for a business to sell an item after its use by date due to the danger the product may pose.

What do the terms ‘reduced’, ‘increased’, ‘lower’ or ‘more nutrients than…’ on food labels mean?

If you’re anything like this writer, you’re probably attracted to foods that have the terms ‘reduced’ or ‘lower’ on its packaging purely on the perception that such foods are lower in unhealthy nutrients – especially when a direct comparison between another product is made which demonstrates the superiority of said, food. However, there are some requirements that need to be followed if such comparative nutrient claims are made by a product, which are as follows:

  • foods that make nutrient claims with other food items must include a statement comparing the nutrient content between the two items
  • outline the difference between the quantity of the nutrients between the two foods in percentage and fractional terms
  • comparison statements must also be accurate and not be misleading.

What conditions are applied to nutrient claims?

Foods that are labelled ‘low fat’ obviously pique the interest of people who are conscious of purchasing such items. However, the conditions that nutrient claims can be made is rather interesting. How so? Well, let’s use an example of chicken nuggets that have a ‘low fat’ label. The nuggets can meet the requirements of a low fat item if it is grilled, however if they were to be fried, the nuggets may not meet the low fat classification. As a consequence, if the manufacturer of the nuggets wants to label the item as ‘low fat’, the packaging must only include preparation instructions on how to prepare the nuggets that will meet the ‘low fat’ requirements.

Many of us are obsessed with food, and are also careful with what we eat. Hopefully this piece has given you a few new facts to digest, and that it wasn’t too hard to swallow (all puns intended).


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