February 17, 2013

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When shopping for food, date stamps are a familiar sight on almost every product. Their purpose, as described by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is simple: 'to help consumers make safe and optimum use of food'. Recognising the importance of using these date stamps is essential, particularly in a commercial kitchen, because the need to prevent food poisoning is so great.

Despite this need, many sites fail to use date stamps properly. Everything in the fridge should be clearly labelled so that others know when it was opened, when it needs to be consumed by and whether it can be reheated. Leaving everything to memory runs the risk of confusion, especially if there are a lot of people involved in food preparation and handling. Therefore, a central part in stopping the threat of food poisoning is to clearly label products, whether they are used as ingredients in the business or as the product for sale or service. There are various systems in use and different rules apply for which type of labelling should be used, and when it should be used. Some important rules are listed below.

The 'use by' label can sometimes be confused by those who think that it indicates the date by which food should be eaten. This is often the case, although the 'use by' date can be extended if it is possible to freeze the food. As long as the product is frozen before the time stated, then it will still be safe to eat after the date on the package. However, it is always essential that the packet instructions on cooking, storing and freezing are adhered to. High-risk, highly perishable foods such as cooked meat, fish and dairy products must be marked with a 'use by' date in order to ensure that the food is not eaten after bacterial growth has reached a dangerously high level such that it poses a threat to human health.

'Best before' labels are less an indication of safety and more a guide of quality. They only offer an effective guide if storage instructions have been followed carefully. Eggs are a slight exception because, although they are marked with a 'best before' date, they should also be eaten by that time otherwise the level of salmonella could be health-threatening. 'Best before' labels are often displayed on less perishable items such as frozen food, dried fruit, flour, cereals, cakes and cans.

The 'display until' date is a label intended more for the seller than the consumer. 'Sell by' labels also give the same information and both can be used by stock controllers to ensure that the food is safe to sell. Using 'display until' labelling is not a legal requirement however, and DEFRA actually encourages businesses to explore alternative practices for using stock control dates which make them less visible to consumers. This is because they believe that doing so will avoid any confusion between the 'display until' and the 'use by' date; the latter is the date that is the legal requirement and is of more significance to the customer.

It is essential to label food with an indication of when it is safe to consume. The system in place should be consistent to avoid any confusion, particularly in a commercial environment, and most importantly, everyone must adhere to the date marks. It is illegal to change a date mark without re-treating or processing the food correctly, because once something is opened, it is exposed to moisture, heat, nutrients and time, all of which are requirements for bacterial growth. Products should always be stored and used according to strict guidelines to avoid any microbiological danger.

Paul Grantham is employed by Safer Food Handler, which has produced an online food hygiene course. Safer Food Handler offers the UK's lowest cost L2 Food Hygiene Certificate that fully meets UK EHO requirements. For food handling businesses with 5+ employees needing training, there are volume L2 food hygiene course discounts.

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