What are the rules with ‘best before’ dates?

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From broken bones to new beginnings

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Each week former trading standards officer Richard Thomson answers your questions.

Q I bought a packet of biscuits from a market trader but when I opened the packet I found they were two months over their ‘best before’ date. If I’d noticed this at the time I wouldn’t have bought them. How can they get away with selling outdated food?

JI (Internet)

A I understand what you are saying, but you are quite wrong to imply that because the quality date on the package had been exceeded the biscuits are somehow not fit for consumption. All it really means is the product may not meet the same quality standards of freshness than when it first dropped off the production line.

I admit the whole business of food labelling has become confusing for consumers. Not only do we have ‘best before’ quality dates stamped on products, some also have store quality and stock rotation warnings which include a ‘sell by’ date.

This misunderstanding and confusion has, at last, attracted the attention of government ministers. Belatedly, they have decided there is public confusion which leads to perfectly good food being thrown away on a criminal scale for no good reason.

Thankfully, consultation is currently going on with manufacturers retailers and government to do away with this unnecessary control.

The only legally enforceable quality marking will be the familiar ‘use by’ date. It will still be an offence for shops and stores to sell products where the ‘use by’ warning has been exceeded. This is because some foods could become a health hazard if sold after the date indication on the packaging.

I’m not sure if it’ll be rectified, but there has been an exception to the ‘best before’ quality indication that has defied the lawmakers for much longer than it should have done. I refer to eggs, where they were the only product with a ‘best before’ indication that could attract a criminal prosecution if exceeded.

I repeat my cautionary mantra: the law is seldom plain, and rarely simple.

Q About six weeks ago I bought a leather suite from a retailer but didn’t notice a stitching fault with the leather in the chairs. I went back to have it out with the store manager when I first noticed it after about four weeks, but he claimed it was too late to give me my money back. Is this right?

EO (Internet)

A I think the store is probably sailing a bit close to the wind, but the law gives you only three to four weeks from the date of delivery to reject faulty goods.

That doesn’t mean you’ve waved your hard-earned money goodbye. You’re still entitled to other remedies – for example a repair or replacement because the goods were clearly not of satisfactory quality, or fit for their purpose.

I suggest you speak again to the store manager about these alternative rights. Ask what he is prepared to do for you. If the store doesn’t play ball, you’ve got six years from the date of purchase to take them to court.