Frequently asked questions by consumers
Friday 14 January 2011
Find out what help we can offer you
- How do I complain about food bought in a shop or restaurant?
- What foods should I eat and stay away from during pregnancy?
- What additives are safe?
- How do I know if I’ve got a food allergy?
- What's the difference between best before and use by dates?
- Can you give me tips on storing and preparing food at home?
You need to talk to your local authority. Find your nearest food standards enforcer here.
Much of our consumer advice is now on NHS Choices. You can get information on healthy eating in pregnancy and what to avoid there.
There are many potentially harmful or toxic chemicals present in the food we eat, whether occurring naturally, as contaminants, or as deliberate additives. But these chemicals are not necessarily harmful in small amounts; the effects they have depend on the amounts we consume. You can find out more about all these types of additive in our chemical safety section.
If you’re worried about food allergy or intolerance, there is lots of information on NHS Choices (see link below). You can find out more about the Agency’s work on allergy and food intolerance here and sign up for email alerts to warn you if a foodstuff is a risk to people with an allergy. You can also get details of all the latest allergy alerts as soon as they're issued by getting the details sent as a SMS text message direct to your mobile phone. To sign up to this free service, simply send the text message 'START ALLERGY' to the number 62372. To unsubscribe, just text 'STOP ALLERGY' to the same number.
External links The Food Standards Agency has no responsibility for the content of external websites
You will see 'use by' dates on food that goes off quickly, such as smoked fish, meat products and ready-prepared salads. Don't use any food or drink after the end of the 'use by' date on the label, even if it looks and smells fine. This is because using it after this date could put your health at risk.
For the 'use by' date to be a valid guide, you must follow carefully storage instructions such as 'keep in a refrigerator'. If you don't follow these instructions, the food will spoil more quickly and you may risk food poisoning. 'Use by' does not always mean 'eat by'. If a food can be frozen its life can be extended beyond the 'use by' date. Once a food with a 'use by' date on it has been opened, you also need to follow any instructions such as 'eat within a week of opening'. But if the 'use by' date is tomorrow, then you must use the food by the end of tomorrow, even if you only opened it today.
'Best before' dates appear on a wide range of frozen, dried, tinned and other foods.
The 'best before' dates are more about quality than safety, except for eggs. So when the date runs out it doesn't mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture.
However, you shouldn't eat eggs after the 'best before' date. This is because eggs can contain salmonella bacteria, which could start to multiply after this date. The 'best before' date will only be accurate if the food is stored according to the instructions on the label, such as 'store in a cool dry place' or 'keep in the fridge once opened'.
Date marks such as 'display until' or 'sell by' often appear near or next to the 'best before' or 'use by' date. They are used by some shops to help with stock control and are instructions for shop staff, not shoppers.
NHS Choices has our information on keeping food safe. You can find out more about storing food here and preparing food safely on the NHS Choices website. You can find out about the Agency’s work in the safety and hygiene section.