Are expiration dates mandatory for food

Best before date and use-by date

Wiki article type: 2 (info article)

The Best before date For many people in our society (perhaps even for most of them) it is the best decision aid for whether a food is still edible or not. Until recently, even the federal government recommended that groceries only be passed on shortly after the best-before date.

And the best-before date with the durability of a food nothing to do. So it is completely useless as a criterion for edibility.

What's behind it? What is the best before date in reality? And why is it important not to match the best-before date with the Use-by date confused and take the use-by date very seriously?
This article attempts to explain.

After the best before date is that bad? A myth.

When it comes to determining whether a food is still edible or not, the most popular decision criterion is the best-before date. In contrast to all other options - which require a little or sometimes a great deal of knowledge about food - the best-before date is apparently particularly simple.

In reality, however, you can hardly be more wrong than by strictly observing the best-before date. Because the best before date (BBD) has nothing to do with the palatability of a food. That's a big myth.

What is the best before date?

Food packaging almost always has a best-before date (See section for exceptionsLegal basis). It is marked with the words "Best before (end)", followed by the date or by an indication of where the date can be found on the packaging.

Sometimes the storage conditions are also given. The best-before date only applies if these conditions are continuously observed. (But: what the word "applies" means in this context, see sectionAnd the guarantee?)
The indication of the best before date is mandatory in the European Union ([1], Art. 9 (1) f)), also in Switzerland ([2], Art. 36 Paragraph 1d.).

To understand what the best before date really means, it is best to take a quick look at the legal requirements.

Legal basis

The obligation to label certain foods (and also a few other substances such as cosmetics) is determined by the Regulation No. 1169/2011 of the EU ([1]). The text on the best before date is very short. The regulation only states that

  • the indication of the best before date for food is mandatory (Art. 9 (1) f))
  • in the case of "microbiologically perishable foods" instead Consumption date (VD) must stand (Art. 24 (1))
  • There are some exceptions, especially raw, unprocessed fruit and vegetables except sprouts and sprouts, drinks with an alcohol content of 10% or more, fresh baked goods, and a few more (App. X.1d))
  • the form of the best-before date is precisely defined (Annex X.1a-c))

The decisive factor is the definition of the term in Article 2 (2) r) :

"[The expression ...]" best before date of a food "means the date until which this food, if properly stored, retains its specific properties;"

There is nothing more there in the wording.

The "specific properties"

The specific properties are set individually for each foodstuff, but often not across the EU, but in national law. In Germany they are in the "German Food Book" ([3], [4]). There you can read, for example, for fruit ([5]):

"Length dimensions can ... at 10% of the total weight ... deviate by up to 10% from the reference value" ([5], 1.3.3)

That means, for example: 10% of the bananas can be up to 10% longer or shorter or wider or narrower ... than the standard banana. Or:

"Dried apples ... are almost evenly cut ... of the typical whitish to yellow color ... smell and taste are fruity, intense like ripe apples ... They have a firm, but not leathery, tough texture." ([5],

The best-before date is the point in time up to which the fruit retains this exact color, smell and texture and does not shrink (for example, when it becomes wrinkled).

Incidentally, the EU directive states "Time up to which the fruit ... retains" - not "probably retains" or "usually retains" ([1], Art. 2 (2) r)). Hopefully the fruit always knows that too ...

Best before and food waste

You can see clearly from all the regulations just cited: the best before date says that foods may then look a little different (lighter, darker, different color), smell a little different (e.g. less intensely fruity) or are softer / harder than usual. In this context, there are no labels that show a food to be bad (inedible).
The best before date has absolutely nothing to do with edibility. (In contrast to the use-by date, see the section on this!)

Cleverly, the best before date is given in English as “best-before ...” - not “good-before ...” - the food is not only good, but in its best possible condition up to the date.
The German term "at least best by ..." is actually misleading and should better mean: "unchanged quality until ..." or "perfect until ..." However, the terms are also used in most other EU languages ​​in this one Choosing a misleading sense, and the main designation "date of minimum durability" (instead of "minimum quality date" or "minimum perfection date") has even made it into English as an alternative designation "date of minimum durability".

And the guarantee? And how long?

In the Legal Basis section is the complete (!) Legal text for the best before date. The words nowhere appear in it warranty, Guarantee or liability on. This is also a myth: namely that a manufacturer guarantees that a food will be the right color, size, etc. by the best before date.
Manufacturers do not give a guarantee - they only say the time in advance or estimate. If a food changes beforehand, it can often be exchanged as a goodwill gesture; but manufacturers or shops are not obliged to do so.

And it gets even wilder: There are no legal requirements on how the best before date is determined. Manufacturers can choose the best before date completely freely. (The only exception: raw eggs may have a best before date of no more than 28 days after laying ([19], Art. 13)).
There is a DIN standard for determining the best before date (DIN-10968, [8]; meanwhile also an international version as ISO 16779), which gives precise recommendations for the scientific determination of the best before date and suitable storage conditions. But a norm is not a law. You can stick to them - but you can also set the best-before date in more imaginative ways.
The fact that manufacturers naturally want to keep the number of complaints as low as possible probably has a strong influence. This can tempt you to set the best before date too short rather than too long. In addition, a short best-before date naturally increases the sales of a product because many people then throw away the products earlier and buy new ones.

Best before and food waste - conclusion

So the best before date is a great way to increase food waste:

  • First, it "sorts out" foods when their color, shape, size, smell, taste or texture change - regardless of whether this change really means that a food is bad.
  • Second, manufacturers can be tempted to set the best-before date rather briefly so that food is no longer eaten much earlier than it should actually be.
  • Thirdly, it also enables people to focus on the best before date. You will then forego other means such as the eye-nose-mouth test or learning more about food; however, these aids would be more precise and would mean that one food can be eaten for much longer.

Is the best before date completely superfluous?


After everything that has been collected so far, the question arises whether the best-before date is actually completely superfluous. From the point of view of edibility, the answer to the question is very clear: Yes - with a few exceptions! The best before date can be completely ignored for most foods. (More about the two exceptions at the end of this section.)

The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) explained this in a brochure in 2014 ([6a], p. 16):

"[when passing on food after its best-before date ...] the following should be observed:
  • No abnormalities when checking the appearance, color and smell,
  • The period of exceeding the best-before date is small in relation to the total shelf life and the
  • The cold chain was not broken. "

and explains:

"If the best-before date of a food item has been exceeded, this must be made clear and easily understandable. However, the goods may continue to be put into circulation if the company selling the goods is satisfied that the food is safe . "

The second point ("period ...") shows that the BMEL at that time was not yet able to completely jump over its shadow (or step out of that of the MHD). Even then, the word "low" left a lot of leeway, and the "total shelf life" cannot be determined if one does not know the date of manufacture.

In the new edition of the brochure from 2020 ([6b], p. 16) this paragraph has been deleted without replacement!

However, there are 3 different "But"that shouldn't be overlooked.


The best-before date and any additional information that may be included indicate 3 things that must be done when passing on food after the best-before date very important are:

  1. The Verification the appearance, the color and the smell is indispensable (eye-nose-mouth test) - as far as this is possible without opening the packaging. Article 14 of the VO EG 178/2002 stipulates this: "Food that is not safe must not be placed on the market." ([7], Art. 14 (1)) The remaining paragraphs of Article 14 describe how to determine the safety of a food.
  2. If additionally Storage conditions are specified, then these are important for the safety of the food (while the best before date itself is not relevant).
    • If the conditions could not be met, then the food can be hazardous to health. ([1], Art. 2 (2) r) in conjunction with [7], Art. 14 (2) a, (5) and (7))
    • The conditions are not always just the maintained cold chain! Requirements can also be that a food is kept dry, protected from light, unopened or sealed. After opening the (innermost) packaging, for example, the shelf life of a food with a best-before date is usually considerably shorter.
  3. In the case of foods with an expired best-before date, this must be clearly indicated be pointed out. This is best done in writing by means of a poster at the delivery point or even an inscription on the packaging; Oral information is also sufficient if the food is handed over personally. ([1], Art. 4 (1) b) ii))

The exception to "yes, most groceries"!

There is one type of food for which the best before date has to be taken a little more seriously; namely chilled ready meals and prepared dishes, e.g. filled pasta, meatballs, ready-made salads or prepackaged mixed salads (see inter alia [9]). If food has been prepared for consumption - for example, boiled, cold-mixed or even just cut - then it usually does not keep for too long; and the sensory check is not very successful:

  • First come often Components that influence each other, for example sour ingredients (vinegar, cream) with delicate pieces of vegetables or oil and spices with meat. This means that individual components can spoil more quickly.
  • Second, vegetables, for example, get a when sliced larger surface, but above all open, unprotected cut surfaces. This allows microorganisms to penetrate much faster.
  • Third are in such foods often several notes of taste and smell united, so that an ingredient has a strong and good aroma can mask the spoilage odor of another ingredient. - It can also happen that an ingredient is actually a Use-by date because it can produce odorless or low-odor toxins. If the heated finished product then has a longer shelf life than the starting ingredient and only has a best-before date, then this ingredient can soon become critical. For example, minced meat has a use-by date, but a fried meatball only has a best-before date. - The consequence is: the eye-nose-mouth test cannot determine with certainty that this food is edible.

The exception to "yes, mostly"!

It is well known that many foods are completely safe to eat long after their best-before date. With a yogurt, for example, some liquid (water and whey) may gradually leak out or the color of the fruit mixture may show through, but it is still edible.

The shelf life of different foods can, however, be very different. They range from a few weeks after production to years: fresh sausage, for example, usually spoils within 1-2 weeks even if stored appropriately in the refrigerator, while yoghurt can keep for six months or more. The shelf life of dry goods or canned food depends more on the shelf life of the packaging material - i.e. how long the can, plastic bag or rubber ring in the glass lid seals the contents airtight.

But no food can be kept forever, even the longest-lasting will spoil at some point. Even if no microorganisms and no oxygen penetrate, even if the bacteria and molds present in the food have used up all the oxygen available ... If a single anaerobic bacterium (living without oxygen) has survived the heating of the food, then it can stay in the package have multiplied very slowly but steadily into a whole strain after 5 or 10 or 20 years.

And therefore: Even if the best-before date is generally unimportant - for one very long expired best before date should attentive become. It still doesn't tell you when the food is going bad, but it does tell you how old it is (at least).
What very long means depends heavily on the food. One can only give rules of thumb (all for unopened packaging!):

  • fresh meat and sausage products (not smoked) and milk - very different: 1-2 days to several weeks
  • fermented / fermented milk products for several months
  • Dry goods with light packaging (plastic, paper) 1-2 years
  • Canned food (cans, jars) 2-10 years, depending on the quality of the lid

There are also big differences for drinks:

  • 3-6 months in plastic bottles, much longer in glass bottles
  • Beer 6-12 months, wine between 2 and 10 years

The list is of course not exhaustive.

Hence the final advice: One should look at this date when assessing the edibility of a food with a best-before date - and always ignore it if it is not very long past; instead, examine the food with your senses. But if the best-before date is long gone - then you should get the food especially carefully check with your senses.

Some foods have a use-by date (VD). It should not be confused with the best before date (BBD), which is generally unimportant. In contrast to this, the use-by date is important information about the consumability of a product. Ignoring them can be very dangerous.

What is the use by date?

The use-by date must be indicated with the designation "Use by: "(or a reference to where the date is). You must also include the required Storage conditions for the product can be specified. This is mostly mainly the storage temperature. If these conditions are not met, the food can go bad before the use-by date.

By the way: The term expiration date is often used for the use-by date. In terms of the meaning of the word, it is absolutely correct, but actually designates something else, namely the usability of medicinal products.

The use-by date - a best before date level 2?

The use-by date - like the best-before date - is replaced by the Food information regulation of the EU prescribed, and all the stipulations relating to this are together with those for the best-before date, and it must also be specified in the same form as the best-before date.

Art. 24 (1) states:

"In the case of foods which perish very easily from a microbiological point of view and which consequently can pose an immediate danger to human health after a short period of time, the best-before date is replaced by the use-by date." ([1])

This gives the impression that both dates are closely related and just represent different cases or levels of shelf life. However, this impression is completely wrong. In reality, the two dates have almost nothing to do with each other.

The use-by date is important! The best-before date is not.

The most important - and most noticeable - difference between the two statements is: one of them indicates a real danger from possibly spoiled food - the other does not.
When it comes to whether a food is still edible, it is the use-by date very important, on the other hand, the best before date almost useless (or in a more friendly way: largely superfluous).
If you read carefully, you will already see this in the EU regulation already quoted. There it says:

"After the use-by date, a food is considered unsafe within the meaning of Article 14 Paragraphs 2 to 5 of Regulation (EC) No. 178/2002." ([1], App. X. 2a-c))

In Regulation No. 178, among other things, it says:

"Food that is not safe must not be placed on the market." ([7], Art. 14 (1))

Reference is made to Ordinance No. 178 only in connection with the use-by date, but not with the best before date. It becomes clear that the best before date has nothing to do with the "safety of food" (i.e. the safe consumption). (See also, for example, [10] and [11].)

The Best before is an indication of whether a food retains its "specific properties" ([1], Art. 2 (2) r)). It therefore relates to quality standards and indicates how long a food fulfills certain requirements in terms of taste, good appearance, good smell and others, i.e. ultimately how long it meets specified requirements; or to put it the other way around: when it is this Ideals of beauty no longer corresponds.
In which VD on the other hand, it is about consumability - or to put it the other way round: about Health hazard. While you can safely ignore the MHD (apart from exceptions, see above), observing the VD is more or less vital.

Which foods have a use-by date and why?

The indication of a use-by date is not required for almost all foods. Manufacturers can choose between a VD and an MHD for each of their products.
The specification of a consumption date is only mandatory for Preferred milk (raw milk) and for Poultry meat ([13], §17 (2) 4; [14], Art. 5 (3)). Usually, a use-by date is also on (List of [15]):

  • Minced meat or other minced meat, fresh sausage
  • other fresh meat products
  • smoked fish
  • Delicatessen salads, already cut salads

Why is there no general definition?

There is no generally applicable stipulation or more precise specification as to which foods are "very perishable from a microbiological point of view" and consequently require a use-by date. The decision in each individual case lies with the food manufacturer.
The Swiss Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office gives an explanation: "The choice of consumption or best-before date depends on the specific recipe and the manufacturing process or the associated shelf life risk." ([12]) The German Federal Ministry has expressed a similar opinion ([10]).

For which types of food does the use-by date make sense?

Decisive reasons for the award of a VD instead of an MHD are,

  • if toxins develop in a food or microorganisms can grow that are dangerous or even life-threatening for human health (clever description of the Swiss government, albeit no longer a law: [16], 2.2).
  • if you cannot notice these substances or microorganisms from the outside (eye-nose-mouth test). A VD usually appears on foods that produce odorless toxins or microorganisms that do not cause any change in color or texture (firmness, surface roughness, moisture, etc.).
  • if the food comparatively fast spoils
  • if the food can only be kept edible under special storage conditions (low cooling temperature or even frozen)

What do I do with use-by date foods?

If a food has a use-by date, then you have to be particularly careful and careful with it.

What is important with VD food?

There are 4 important things to consider for foods with a use-by date.

  1. After expiration: According to the use-by date, there is a high probability that the food is a dangerous poison! They must then be disposed of in any case.
  2. Cold chain: With these foods, the cold chain must be maintained without interruption, i.e. the foods must be permanently stored in a cool place according to the information on their packaging (Exception: short transport route, see hygiene rules B1b)). If this is not guaranteed, then they must not be passed on.
  3. Eye-nose-mouth test: Checking with the senses does not work! Under no circumstances can you and must not rely on what your senses tell you. It is best to just leave it, because it can only mislead you.
  4. Packaging open: If the Packaging open or is damaged, microorganisms can penetrate even faster. The food can then go bad earlier, i.e. before the use-by date.

In all of these cases the food is allowed under no circumstances passed on or used as an ingredient in the preparation of a dish, which is then passed on. You shouldn't use them yourself either, but simply dispose of them.

Preserving use-by-date foods by freezing them

Most foods with a use-by date can be frozen and then stored beyond the use-by date ([18]). The important thing here is ([17]):

  • The food has to be frozen at all be suitable (see the detailed tips).
  • The food must before the use-by date be frozen.
  • Frozen meat only lasts a certain time (see below: Freeze Date)
  • In the case of meat, the defrosting liquid must be poured away (risk of salmonella).
  • The food must be heated through immediately after defrosting and consumed immediately.
  • There are sometimes special instructions on freezing and thawing that you should pay attention to.

Exceeding the use-by date is not always the end of the usability. You can cheat the use-by date if you think about it in good time. But if you only receive food after its use-by date (or find it in the refrigerator), then unfortunately there is nothing left to save.

In addition to the best-before date and the use-by date, there are a few other details that occur or are required in certain cases. To get the most complete overview possible, they should be briefly described here.
Only the first date in the list is relevant for the edibility of food, the freezing date. The other dates have different purposes and are aimed at maintaining quality requirements, just like the best-before date.

Freeze Date

The date of the (possibly first) freezing is prescribed for "frozen meat, frozen meat preparations and frozen unprocessed fishery products" ([1], Annex III 6. and Annex X 3 as well as Art. 24, heading).

Because meat and fish products cannot be stored indefinitely, even when frozen. After a while, the fat it contains begins to decompose, so that the food becomes rancid and is no longer perceived as tasty by most people.
However, there is no health risk, as the microorganisms do not multiply further at temperatures below 0 ° C.

The storage time depends on the type of meat, fat content and freezing temperature. For a temperature of -18 ° C, the following storage times can be assumed (time span for lean to fatty meat):

Beef - 9-12 months;
Pork - 4-8 months;
Minced meat - 1-3 months
Chicken - 8-10 months
(Source: [17])

Storage times are shortened at lower freezing temperatures.

Date of sale, date of laying and date of cooling

These 3 dates exist (or existed) in the European Union only for eggs. However, they occasionally appear as a voluntary additional information for other foods. In the English-speaking world, for example, the “shelf life” specification in the form “Display until ...” is quite common.
For raw eggs there is - as the only food ever - a maximum best before date set, namely 28 days ([19], Art. 13). The other 3 dates refer to this.

The Date of sale is not explicitly stated on the packaging, but has to be calculated. Raw, packaged eggs may be sold a maximum of 21 days after the laying date ([20], Annex III, Section X, Chap. I 3 .; [13], §22 (3)), except for direct sales by the producer to private individuals. The maximum sale date is therefore determined as 7 days before the best-before date (or from the laying date, if it is stated).
It also becomes clear that the sale date has nothing to do with the edibility of the eggs. It is intended to ensure that eggs retain the same quality for at least 7 days after they have been bought.

The Laying date is generally not mandatory. However, if the eggs are labeled as "extra" or "extra fresh" on the packaging, they may only be sold up to 9 days after laying, and the laying date must be indicated ([19], Art. 14).

The Cooling date For eggs one had to calculate from the best before date or the laying date, because eggs had to be kept "from the 18th day after laying at a temperature of + 5 ° C to + 8 ° C" in order to be allowed to be sold ([13], §20). The regulation was abolished in 2016 because eggs can no longer be sold 3 days later anyway.

All 3 dates refer only to immediate sale; Eggs can still be processed afterwards. This is also very clear after the previous sections of this article, because the dates are all well before the best-before date. So they have no relevance for the ability to be consumed.

Further dates

In addition to the mandatory information listed above, there is a whole range of additional information that manufacturers can provide voluntarily for special products or in special situations. For example, wine bottles usually (but not always) say Bottling vintage, on other drinks sometimes one Filling date, and burnt alcoholic beverages can be a Distillation date be specified.
There are of course no limits to the imagination for voluntary information - and you can often provide interesting information for specific products. Who knows what else we can discover: a smoking date maybe, a catch date for fresh fish, a loading date or a fermentation date?


[1] Regulation (EU) No. 1169/2011 - Food Information Regulation (LMIV), Version dated 01/01/2018

[2] Ordinance SR 817.02 (Switzerland) - Food and Consumer Goods Ordinance (LGV), Version from 01.07.2020

[3] German food book, accessed on November 22, 2020

[4] German Food Book Commission: Guiding principles from the specialist committees, as amended from November 22nd, 2020

[5] German food book, Guiding principles for fruit products, as amended from November 22nd, 2020

[6a, 6b] Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Guide to the distribution of food to social institutions - Legal aspects, Issues October 2014 and August 2020

[7] Regulation (EC) No. 178/2002 i.d.F. from 07/26/2019

[8] DIN-10968 - Determining and checking the minimum shelf life of foods, December 2003; now also an international version as ISO 16779.

[9] Federal Center for Nutrition, Recognize food spoilage, accessed on December 2nd, 2020

[10] Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, best-before and use-by date, accessed on November 27, 2020

[11] Food Standards Agency (UK), Best before and use by dates, accessed on November 27, 2020

[12] Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office, information on the food label, accessed on November 27, 2020

[13] Animal Food Hygiene Regulation - Tier-LMHV (Germany), dated 08.08.2007 in the version dated 19.06.2020

[14] Regulation (EC) No. 543/2008 - Implementing provisions for Regulation (EC) No. 1234/2007 of the Council with regard to the marketing standards for poultry meat in the version dated July 1, 2013

[15] Federal Association of Consumer Organizations and Consumer Associations, The use-by date is to be taken seriously, accessed on December 3rd, 2020

[16] Federal Department of Home Affairs FDHA, Guide "Food Waste", May 29, 2014

[17] Consumer advice center NRW, buying and storing meat properly, accessed on December 3rd, 2020

[18] EU Commission - shelf life data on food packaging, accessed on December 2nd, 2020

[19] Regulation (EC) 589/2008 - Implementing provisions for marketing standards for eggs, dated June 23, 2008

[20] Regulation (EC) 853/2004 - Specific hygiene regulations for food of animal origin, in the version dated March 11, 2015

Article by: WG Hygiene - Exchange and (specialist) knowledge (Contact)
Last revision on December 28th, 2020