Trading Standards Institute Advice

Date and lot marking of prepacked food

In the guide

This guidance is for England

Most prepacked foods (ones packaged in advance of their sale) are required to be date-marked with an indication of the minimum durability of the food. However, there are a small number of prepacked foods that are exempt from this requirement.

Food business operators (FBOs) may modify the information given and are responsible for the accuracy of changes that they make. This enables, amongst other things, FBOs to freeze a product if it is appropriate to do so. An FBO that freezes a product needs to indicate the new durability date and give the appropriate conditions of use and storage instructions.

There are two different types of date marking: 'use by' and 'minimum durability'. Either of these indications may take the form of a reference to where the actual date is given on the labelling.

Most prepacked foods must also carry a batch and/or lot number so a product can be traced if necessary.

Types of date marking

There are two types of date markings given in the legislation in respect of prepacked food. These are:

Use-by date

This should be applied to foods that, from the microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely, after a short period, to constitute an immediate danger to human health. These types of food include fresh meat, fish, poultry, cooked meat, pate, dairy products, ready-made meals, salads, and soft cheeses. They are required to be marked with 'a day' and 'a month', such as 'Use by 28 December'. Packers may also add a year should they wish to do so - for example, 'Use by 28 December 2014'. The date must appear in that order and not in a coded form. If the product consists of individual prepacked portions, the use-by date must appear on each portion.

Minimum-durability date ('best before' / 'best before end')

This should be applied to foods that do not need a use-by date.

Foods intended to have a shelf life of three months or less - for example, bread or hard cheeses - are required to be marked with a day and a month - for example, 'Best before 4 February'. A year is not required, but may be included if desired.

Best-before may also be applied to foods with a shelf life of between three months and 18 months, provided it is marked with 'a day', 'a month' and 'a year' - for example, 'Best before 22 June 2015'.

These foods may also be marked with best-before-end. This should be applied to foods intended to have a shelf life in excess of three months, such as frozen and tinned foods. They are required to be marked with a month and a year - for example, 'Best before end May 2016'.

Alternatively for products with a shelf life of over eighteen months, this indication may be in the form of a year only - for example, 'Best before end 2016'. 

Wherever possible it is advisable to use letters (rather than numbers) for the month so as to avoid any possible confusion - for example, '06 12' can be interpreted as 6 December or as June 2012.

In all cases, the storage conditions that need to be observed for the food to keep until the date shown must also be marked.

Other date markings, such as 'display until', do not have any legal standing / significance (except in the case of eggs - see below). The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published Guidance on the application of date labels to food advising that these additional date markings are confusing to consumers. Page 14 of this document has a flow chart designed to help in deciding which date marks to apply.

Conditions of sale

Foods marked with a use-by date must not be sold or displayed for sale after their marked dates. It is an offence to sell or offer for sale food past its use-by date. For example, 'Use by 5 March' means use by midnight on 5 March.

Foods marked with best-before or best-before-end dates may be sold after their marked dates, provided that they remain of good quality and are fit for human consumption. In these circumstances it is advisable to ensure that customers know that the date has expired before they make the decision to buy.

The only exception is eggs, which must be removed from sale by their sell-by / display-until date, or if this is not stated seven days before their best-before date - see 'Retail sale & labelling of eggs' for more information. 

The date marking on prepacked foods should be clearly legible, easily visible and indelible. (It should not be obscured, or partly obscured, by price stickers or in any other manner.)

Good retail trading practice - points to consider:

  • carry out date-marking check on foods each morning before you open, or last thing at night after closing. Do not leave it to your suppliers to do this when they make their deliveries
  • remove foods marked with out of date use-by dates (place these in a container in part of the premises not open to customers and clearly mark the container 'Not for sale')
  • consider reducing the price of food for quick sale before it goes out of date

Exemptions from date marking

  • fresh fruit and vegetables (unless peeled or cut into pieces, or legume sprouts)
  • wine, liqueur wine, sparkling wine, aromatised wine and similar drink obtained from fruit other than grapes
  • any drink made from grapes or grape musts and coming within codes 2206 00 39, 2206 00 59 and 2206 00 89 of EU Regulation (EEC) No 2658/87 on the tariff and statistical nomenclature and on the Common Customs Tariff
  • any drink with an alcoholic strength by volume of ten per cent or more
  • any flour confectionery and bread that is normally consumed within 24 hours of its preparation
  • vinegar
  • cooking salt
  • solid sugar and confectionery products consisting almost solely of flavoured or coloured sugars
  • chewing gum and similar

Lot marking

Most prepacked foodstuffs intended for human consumption must carry lot or batch marking (unless specifically exempted). This is to enable a product to be traced and/or recalled if necessary, with the maximum efficiency.

It is not necessary for the consumer to understand the lot / batch mark provided the indication can be clearly identified. The mark may have to be prefixed by the letter 'L' if it is not clearly distinguishable from other information, and must be clearly visible, clearly legible and indelible.

Lot marking should be visible on the exterior packaging, such as where retail packs are sold wholesale in boxes or shrink wrapped trays.

Where individual products sold at retail level are sold in additional packaging (for example, whisky in a presentation box) it is good practice to put the lot marking on the external retail packaging (the box) as well as the label of the bottle on the inside. This is so that the correct items can be identified for recall without opening all of the individual boxes.

Bearing in mind any possible need for a product recall, the manufacturer / packer must decide on the size of the batch to be given the specific lot mark. Large batches could result in more products having to be recalled than is perhaps necessary.

Where a product bears a date mark that consists of at least the day and the month (in that order) this may provide sufficient batch identification to serve as the lot mark. If not, a separate lot mark must be given.

Exemptions from lot marking

  • agricultural products that, on leaving the premises, are either:
    - sold / delivered to temporary storage, preparation or packaging stations, or the producer's organisation
    ...or
    - collected for immediate use in an operational preparation or processing system
  • individual items of food sold direct to the ultimate consumer that are not prepacked, such as loose sweets, fruit and vegetables
  • foods sold to the ultimate consumer that are prepacked on the premises of the seller for sale there, or that are prepacked at the request of the purchaser
  • foods that are in a package or container of which the largest size has a surface of less than 10sq cm
  • individual portions intended as an accompaniment to another food provided at catering establishments for immediate consumption - for example, sachets of salt, sugar or sauces
  • individual portions of ice cream and other edible ices
  • units of food that are marked or labelled with an indication of minimum durability or a use-by date that consists at least of the uncoded indication of the day and month in that order

Date of freezing

Frozen meat, frozen meat preparations and frozen unprocessed fishery products require a declaration of the date of freezing (or the date of first freezing in cases where the product has been frozen more than once). It shall be preceded by the words 'Frozen on …' followed by an uncoded indication of the day, month and year in that order, or a reference to where on the label such a date can be found.

Penalties

Failure to comply may result in an improvement notice being issued, requiring compliance to be achieved. If the improvement notice is not complied with it is an offence under the Food Safety Act 1990. The maximum penalty is a fine and two years' imprisonment.

If food is sold after the use-by date it is an offence under the Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013. The maximum penalty is a fine.

Key legislation

Last reviewed / updated: November 2016

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This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.

The guide's 'Key legislation' links may only show the original version of the legislation, although some amending legislation is linked to separately where it is directly related to the content of a guide. Information on amendments to UK legislation can be found on each link's 'More Resources' tab; amendments to EU legislation are usually incorporated into the text.

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