One of the doctrines of good food hygiene is keeping track of the freshness of the produce in your preparation chain. Every manufacturer, retailer and kitchen wants to provide products that are not only safe to eat, but also contain the best and most appealing ingredients. The Level 2 food hygiene training will go into methods of recording and monitoring stock for freshness and safety, but we thought it worth a quick reminder of what the different labelling dates actually mean.
There are 4 main dates that you will see on food. These are there to tell you when food should or must be used or sold on to a customer. You may see other numbers as well, such as manufacturing dates, which are also often part of a batch reference, but you will only need these under unusual circumstances.
- Use by:
This is exactly what it says. The use by date means that the item must be used and consumed by the date displayed. The only way to exceed this date and still be safe is where a product is frozen or cooked thoroughly, in which case, apply the storage rules. There is a worrying tendency for people to be a little sceptical of this date because of an unfounded belief that the manufacturer will have built extra time into the use by period. This is simply not true. The use by is the last safe date the food can be used.
There is no way of knowing if food that has exceeded its date is still good, and there is another worrying belief amongst some people that a ‘quick sniff’ will tell you if the food is OK. It won’t. Sniffing will not tell you anything about the presence of harmful bacteria. In fact, perfectly fresh food, such as pork that has been vacuum packed, will often smell strange when first opened, so if you applied the sniff testing method you would end up throwing away good food and potentially keeping the contaminated.
It is worth mentioning that when combining ingredients it means that the whole dish adopts the shortest use by date.
- Best Before:
This is possibly where the confusion arises about there being a safe period built in to food dates. Best before means that the given date is the last point where the manufacturer or supplier can be sure the contents are at their best. A biscuit, for example, may well lose its crunch and perhaps even some of the taste after the best before, but it is still likely to be perfectly edible. Dried herbs will lose their flavour (this will be particularly noticeable in strong flavours such as chilli or tarragon) but again still edible, and so on. However, it is unlikely that food past the best before will ever be used in a working environment.
- Sell by and display until:
Some items such salad and fresh vegetables do not have either best before or use by dates. This is because they are fresh, and as such have not been through any manufacturing process. Although other dates displayed are intended for the shop to use for inventory control and stock rotation, they can be a handy guide to the remaining available storage time. The sell by and display until dates are the times that the suppliers or retailers think reflect the shelf life of the food, so the more time left the longer it could stay fresh in your kitchen. Again, here, apply some common sense and the storage rules in the training.
Understanding how your food hygiene is linked to the lifespan of the product is vital to maintaining good records. For a food preparation businesss, following the law means following the dates.