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Shelf life is the recommended maximum time for which products or fresh (harvested) produce can be stored, during which the defined quality of a specified proportion of the goods remains acceptable under expected (or specified) conditions of distribution, storage and display. High-acid canned foods (tomatoes, fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods (meats, vegetables) for 2 to 5 years. A product that has passed its shelf life might still be safe, but quality is no longer guaranteed.

According to the USDA, "canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freezing temperatures, or temperatures above 90 °F (32.2° C)". In most food stores, waste is minimized by using stock rotation, which involves moving products with the earliest sell by date from the warehouse to the sales area, and then to the front of the shelf, so that most shoppers will pick them up first and thus they are likely to be sold before the end of their shelf life.

"Overly cautious" and "restrictive" use by dates on food should be scrapped according to new draft Government guidance, and instead should be replaced with best before dates.

Doing so could save consumers £600 million per year and help to reduce the 7.3 million tons of food thrown away in the UK each year, it has been suggested.

Richard Swannell of Wrap, estimates that almost three millions tons of food which could have been eaten is thrown away by households each year.

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