Topic 3.2: How to correctly interpret dates on food packaging

  • There are numerous dates on product labels, and each one has a distinct purpose. These dates are used by manufacturers to communicate specific information to customers, although frequently there is ambiguity regarding the meaning of each date and its intended usage.
  • Dates such as best before and expiration date, have different functions and should therefore be fully understood by the target users.

A Sell By date informs the shop how long to keep the item on display for purchase. This product should be sold before the sell by date.

The expiration date is the date after which some foods may become hazardous to consume. This date should not be passed and can be dangerous.

The Best Before date is the date after which the organoleptic and visual properties of the food may have deteriorated below optimal quality. This does not mean that the food is no longer fit for consumption, it is simply an indication. For example, the best before date on a loaf of processed bread would indicate that after this date that loaf will be stale, instead of unfit for consumption.

  • While there is some interrelation between the three, they are also each uniquely different.  For example, let’s consider a staple in many homes – milk. While the smell of soured milk definitely tells you that you’ve passed the best beforedate, it’s the manufacturer that determines this. Dairy producers pasteurise milk before distribution to kill all bacteria. They utilise this information to calculate the best beforedate after testing or simulating how long the milk may keep under normal storage conditions.
  • In this case, you can think of two different expiry dates at play. The initial expiry date from the manufacturer and also the expiry date for the consumer. Through testing, the dairy farmer is aware of the shelf life of pasteurised milk. The consumer expiry date (also known as the Sell By) will be impacted if their goods is delayed in shipment for any reason. The expiration date is however reached if a product is left unopened after purchase for an excessive amount of time.
  • As you can see, it’s crucial to understand the differences between expiry, best before, and sell by dates in a variety of businesses. These dates assist manufacturers in maintaining the freshness and shelf life of their products, as well as helping consumers stay safe by preventing them from buying or consuming spoiled products.