The Swedish National Food Agency (SNFA) recently published updated recommendations on this slightly tricky subject. So we thought it would be a good time to remind our readers in the food industry of the rules that apply on some of these issues. We have put together the following based on the SNFA’s own Q&As.
Firstly, let’s establish the difference between a best before date (Sw. “bäst före”) and a use by date (Sw. “sista förbrukningsdag”). As detailed below, under a best before date, there is a certain amount of flexibility in how goods may be dealt with, whereas under a use by date there is much less flexibility.
Best before date
- A best before date does not relate to how long food is safe to eat. Instead, it relates to the date until which the food is expected to retain its quality, i.e. taste, colour, crunchiness, crispness and chewiness. What happens after the best before date is that the quality gradually deteriorates. But the food may still be entirely edible.
Use by date
- Use by date labelling concerns how long food is safe to eat. This labelling is used for food that is easily spoiled by microorganisms and where the storage period may contribute to food posing a health risk, despite it being stored according to the packaging’s instructions.
How are best before dates and use by dates determined?
For most foods, there are no laws or public authority recommendations on product life. The assessment is based on the experience gained by the producer through, for example, product life tests or the recommendations determined by the industry in its general industry guidelines.
Is it permitted to relabel food with a later best before or use by date?
No. It’s not typically permitted to change the best before or use by date on packaging.
Can food be sold after a best before date?
Yes. Food may be sold after its best before date as in most cases the food will be entirely edible even after that date.
It is always the seller who is responsible for the food. The seller should determine whether food can be sold after the best before date. A seller may never sell or donate food that is unfit for consumption or unsafe.
For more details, see article 14 of EU Regulation 178/2002 for an example of legislation that regulates seller responsibility.
Can food be sold after the use by date?
No. It is forbidden to sell or donate food that is past its use by date. The use by date is used on food that the producer assesses may deteriorate quickly and pose a health risk. The use by date is the last date that the producer can ensure food may be eaten or drunk without risk to health.
Can information about product life be added next to the best before label?
Yes. But the wording and the order ‘best before [date]’ and ‘Best before end of [date]’ may not be changed. However, the party that produced the food may voluntarily provide information about whether the food may be consumed even after the best before date, for example next to the date label. But other requirements on voluntary information must also be met. It must not be possible for the date label to be misunderstood.
Must the best before or use by date be specified on bulk packaging (bulk packs are packs that are intended for food industry wholesalers or retailers, or for large households) containing food that is pre-packaged?
Does the best before or use by date have to be stated on bulk packs containing food that is not intended for end-consumers?
No. Under article 8, point 8 of Regulation (EU) no. 1169/2011, the party that supplies such bulk packs must ensure that the recipient receives sufficient information in order, where necessary, to label food in which the supplied food is included. In assessing what information is required under article 8, point 8, consideration must be given to what information, under article 9 of the same regulation, must be provided to the consumer. This, in some cases, leads to all the information stated in article 9 also being provided for bulk packs. In other cases, less information may be sufficient. The food business that supplies the food may provide this information in different ways.
Other labelling rules exist in addition to those specified in Regulation (EU) no. 1169/2011, which may also contain other requirements.
Can a shop open a pre-packaged item and sell the contents individually, even if it is past the best before date on the packaging?
Yes, but the seller must always assess whether the food can be sold after the best before date. An individual item or a repackaged item may not be labelled with a later product life date than the original packaging. If the repackaging leads to a reduction in the food’s product life, for example by meat being minced or a vacuum pack being opened, the original product life period should be reduced.
If the food is treated or processed so that the product life is extended, a later date may be specified. Such treatment may include boiling or smoking. However, the seller may never place food that is unfit for consumption or unsafe on the market. The term ‘processing’ does not include freezing. Mincing, seasoning, marinating, slicing or similar does not result in an extension of product life.
Food labelled with a use by date, however, may never be sold after such date.
Can a shop freeze refrigerated items that have not sold and sell them to consumers as frozen food?
Food previously sold as refrigerated items may, under certain conditions, be frozen and sold as frozen. One condition is that the requirements of SNFA regulations (LIVSFS 2006:12) on frozen food are met.
Food may be frozen even after the best before date. Food labelled with a use by date, however, may not be sold as frozen if it has been frozen after the end of the product life.
If previously refrigerated items are frozen, the best before date or the use by date may not be changed – see paragraph 15 of SNFA regulations (LIVSFS 2005:20) on food hygiene – which means the date that applied to the food as a refrigerated item must remain on the labelling. The date must be clearly visible and may not be obscured. In addition, the labelling must be supplemented with certain information required for frozen food:
- The term frozen must be specified next to the designation of the food.
- Best before dates for frozen food. It needs to be clarified that the date applies specifically to the food in its frozen state.
- Instructions about how long the frozen food may be stored by the recipient and regarding the storage temperature or what type of storage equipment is required. If there are instructions that the frozen food must be stored at -18 degrees, no further instructions regarding storage period are required other than the best before date.
- Information that makes it possible to identify the batch should be specified on all frozen food; and
- The text ‘should not be frozen after defrosting’ or similar should be stated on the packaging.
If the food is frozen near the end of the product life, this should also be marked with instructions stating that the food should be cooked immediately after defrosting. See article 9, point 1.j. of Regulation (EU) no. 1169/2011.
Frozen meat, frozen meat preparations and frozen unprocessed fish products should be labelled with a freezing date. See Appendix III, point 6 of Regulation (EU) no. 1169/2011.
The above also applies if pre-packaged food is divided and the contents repackaged.
Can a shop or restaurant use food that is past its best before date as an ingredient in other food?
Yes. They may use the food as a raw material or ingredient in other products on condition that it is of adequate quality and not unfit for consumption. For instance, a shop may grill a previously prepackaged pork fillet and sell it. In such an event, they may also have previously frozen the product in anticipation of it being processed (in this case, grilled). If the grilled pork fillet is then sold as a pre-packed product, the shop must specify a new best before date. That date is based on the shop’s assessment of product life.
Food labelled with a use by date, however, may not be used as a raw material or ingredient after such date.
Does a shop have to throw away food that is past its use by date?
Yes, it is not permitted to sell or donate such food, either in its packaging or individually. Neither is it permitted to use such food as a raw material in other products. Note that this applies when the use by date has passed, i.e. the day after the date specified. The food is deemed to be of adequate quality on the use by date unless otherwise indicated.
Can a shop freeze pre-packed food and use it at its deli counter/restaurant?
Yes, it is permitted to freeze pre-packed goods and then sell such goods at the deli counter, to heat them up or use them in cooking in some other way. The raw materials used at the deli counter/restaurant, however, must be of adequate quality and not unfit for consumption. The shop must consider the original date labelling when it decides whether the food can be used. Freezing of food may not be done without the right type of equipment. The shop must have an appropriate system for checking its own operations to ensure high food standards.
Goods that are past their use by date may not be frozen for later use.
Can a wholesaler or a shop that packages food for consumers specify a later best before date than that stated on the bulk packaging?
Yes, but the party that packages the food is responsible for assessing the product life. The labelling may not mislead consumers and the seller may never place food on the market that is unfit for consumption or unsafe.
Can a shop donate goods that are past their best before date or use by date?
It is permitted to give away food that is past its best before date as the food may still be of adequate quality after such date. The purpose of the best before date is to provide information about how long a food may be considered of adequate quality and the date should be set with a margin.
A party offering an item to consumers is responsible for it being safe and correctly labelled. The shop should assess whether the food can be sold after the best before date and may never place food on the market that is unfit for consumption or unsafe. Placing food on the market may involve both selling it and giving it away free of charge.
However, it is not permitted to donate food that is past its use by date because at the packing date it was considered to be unfit for consumption after a certain date. It is forbidden to place food that is unfit for consumption on the market. Food should be regarded as being unfit for consumption after the use by date, even if in an individual case the food is not actually recognised as being a health risk.
More info can be found here.